Rat India: 5 – 6.09.2013

The train ride from Jaisalmer to Bikaner was tiring; overwhelmingly loud noises, the incredible speed of the train and the fact that I frequently had to hold onto the rails to stop myself falling off the top bunk had me wide-awake for most of the journey, fretting that our train was going to de-rail. Maybe a tad over dramatic – who’s to say?

We had planned to Couch Surf here in Bikaner,  however, when we got off the train, some random guy by the name of Ali was there waiting for us; turns out his friend from the hotel we stayed at in Jaisalmer had made a call to him to say we were coming, and Ali was well prepared at 6am to take us to his friend’s hotel he was sure we’d prefer. Oh, India.
It’s not like we were difficult to spot on the Bikaner train platform either; two whities amongst a crowd of thousands of Indians: not one other tourist stepped off the train…

Our couch surfing plans fell through, and we headed instead to a guest house I’d read great things about: Vijay Guest House (around 4km out of town). Vijay, the man himself, wearing a full set of white Kurta Pyjamas and bright orange crocks, with a curly Rajisthani mustache and a big smile welcomed us.
He was generous and kind, and knew how to treat tourists. What a relief. He offered to take us into town with him around 11am, when he was going in to the market area. We took him up on his offer, and traveled by car to the old town area.

Bikaner is a desert city – right in the middle of the Thar Desert – but its jam packed with people; it’s not such a big place, but it’s damn busy and has a population of around 600,000. Once you take into account the number of cows, camels and dogs walking the streets, that number probably doubles or triples.
It is hot here; so hot that the heat exhausted us quickly. We found solace in a very local-only sweet shop, Chotu Motu Joshi Hotel, and filled our empty stomachs with delicious lassis, puris with potato and the apparently “must have here because it’s the best in town” rasgulla – another Indian sweet we couldn’t stomach.

We had an hour and a half to enjoy before meeting Vijay, but the heat, the constant hard staring from people, the photo photo going on and the hectic traffic made us feel the need to retreat. It felt as if this place had never seen a tourist before; we were something everyone needed to get a very good, long look at: something that is really starting to exhaust me.

Back at Vijay’s, we slept the afternoon away, emerging eventually to get chai from the vendor outside the guest house. The many men drinking there were fascinated by us, and every time we went there we had a crowd of people wanting to talk to us, stare at us, call their friends over to see us, shake our hands… Funny.

We spent our one night in Bikaner in our safety bubble – choosing to eat dinner at our guest house and watch the night fall over the town whilst I strummed my ukulele and looked back on our travels in India to-date.

I’m beginning to have mixed feelings towards India, and I’m starting to find traveling here more of a challenge each day. There are so many factors that make each day in India incredible, interesting and lively, yet at the same time unbelievably challenging, frustrating and distressing. I have found myself becoming less patient with those who try to take advantage of us, try to rip us off, those who stare and photograph us, those who try to cheat us. At the beginning of this trip I was able to accept it, laugh it off and say – Oh well, I guess we have to expect that here! – but now, I don’t feel like I have to accept it. I’m growing a bit tired of having to argue with people to treat us fairly, and argue with people to leave us alone. It’s exhausting to feel so skeptical and not be able to trust people around us. It can be stressful worrying about our safety every time we get into a tuk tuk, walk the streets, meet someone new, travel by train overnight, eat anything….
It’s upsetting to feel that I can’t trust those around me; even more so those who may be genuinely nice (it can be very hard to differentiate between genuine and not-so-genuine offers of “may I help you?”). I find myself having to talk to people aggressively, or sternly, simply because I feel here it is necessary at times. I don’t go around yelling at everyone, of course, but I’m starting to find it difficult not to get angry when people feel they can harass us to almost-breaking point, and take advantage of us simply because we are white, and therefore, must be rich and happy to hand over our hard earned money.

I still love India, that’s for sure – it’s a country I want to come back to, explore more of, become captivated by over and over. We were like children in a candy store when we arrived here; the chaos and traffic and people and sounds, light, colours all captivated our attention. Now, trying to constantly dodge shit, pot holes, deadly traffic, cheating touters and upturned or missing pavement isn’t so wonderful. Perhaps what I am trying to say is simply, whilst this country is truly incredible, and never ceases to amaze me, I’m starting to get a bit tired…

I think it’s quite common for people traveling in India to feel this way; I hear and read a lot about this whole “loving India – hating India stage” process that people seem to go through; maybe I’ve reached a new “stage?”

On our second morning in Bikaner, we walked from Vijay’s guest house to the bus stop, which was about a 50 minute walk down the road. Tuk tuks offered us many ridiculously priced rides which we declined on pure principal; preferring to walk in the extreme heat on the road and dust (no footpaths), rather than be ripped off.

We took a bus (after Rock, Paper, Scissoring whether or not we actually wanted to make the trip) out to Deshnoke, a town about a 40 minute bus ride away through dusty, sleepy desert towns. Apparently when people come to Bikaner, it is rare that they don’t make a trip out here, simply to visit one place: Karni Mata Temple: The Rat Temple. I guess Rock, Paper, Scissor was right – we had to visit.

The idea of a temple full of thousands of rats, for me, does not bring about the most pleaseant thoughts. However, it does intrigue me…just a little.
Karni Mata is worshiped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga; she was a Hindu woman who lived a very elegant and revered life, and is known for her temple in Deshnoke, for which she laid the foundation stone.
Karni Mata temple is not like any other temple we’ve visited, for the fact that it is home to around 20 thousand-odd (very sick looking) rats, which are considered to be sacred animals and highly respected by the thousands of pilgrims (and curious tourists like ourselves) who visit this temple daily.
The story behind this temple goes something like this: Karni Mata’s son, Laxman, died, so she asked Yama – the god of death – to bring him back to life. Refusing to do so, Yama instead allowed Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children (she must’ve had a lot of them…) to be reincarnated as rats.
The rats here are fed daily by the thousands of worshiping visitors, who bring with them bowls upon bowls of India sweets and milk for the rats to enjoy.

On arrival, we got off the bus to be greeted with touters, tuk tuk drivers, beggars, dust and dirt and a LOT of staring. Covering my head with my scarf barely made a difference.
We walked over to the area where we had to deposit – very unwillingly – our shoes, and demanded some sort of material slipper; there’s no way I was walking bare footed through a temple where thousands of rats live, eat, poo and die.

Looking like absolutely ridiculous tourists, with material bags covering our feet, a thousand people stared as we lined up to enter the temple. Staring back at the thousands of bare feet around me, I felt sick already by the sheer thought of what we – and they – were about to stand on. I’d love to see the results of a bacteria swab of the temple floor; or maybe, I wouldn’t…

On entering the temple, we saw a rat.

Then two…
Then a thousand. Oh, fuck, get me out of here now.

Apparently it’s good luck if you see a white (albino) rat, or if a rat runs directly over your foot. Even more so, it’s considered to be a prestigious honour to eat food nibbled by the rats themselves. Oh, I’m about to be sick.
I was more concerned about what diseases I may contract during my five minutes inside the temple than I was spotting a white rat, and someone help me if one even so much as came near my foot!

Whilst bare footed pilgrims fed the diseased looking rats bowls of sugar and Indian sweets, I tried to stand as still as possible for fear of stepping on any more grainy rat poo. I watched as two women scraped the grey-black dusty, oily rat-germ infested grime from the floor and touched it to their foreheads, leaving a greasy grey mark. I almost vomited, but then stopped myself for fear of attracting rats.

We wandered around the temple, avoiding the rat poo and many cameras shoved in our faces, to see a group of pilgrims touching their hand to every rat-waste-covered step as they ascended to another rat-infested area. So many rituals seemed to be taking place, none of which we could comprehend, and we were shocked by all of what we saw, to say the least.
The fascination and shock that India offers us never seems to end.

After the eight hundredth person had photographed us – instead of the temple they had come to visit – and a rat came remotely close to me, it was time to leave. We escaped into the sun light, unscathed and without an albino rat sighting. No eternal good luck for us, I guess.

What an experience.

At the shoe stand, it was almost impossible to get our shoes back, let alone put them onto our feet, which were now thankfully free of the bacteria-sodden slippers. A massive crowd had forgotten they were meant to be visiting the rats, and instead was more fascinated with these two terrified whities. The crowd formed around us while the shoe guy demanded we pay him, right underneath the sign that said “free service.” Whilst I argued that no, actually, this is a free service and just because we are white-skinned doesn’t mean you can rip us off  (a rant I am getting very well versed in, and a little bit sick of having to repeat), a screaming baby was shoved into Jacob’s arms. I tried to escape from the pappping, but it was no use; still trying to put my shoes onto my feet, a plump woman grabbed my arm with such a grip she left a bruise. I was forced into the photo with Jake, standing a few steps up from everyone else, feeling like some sort of mistaken celebrity on a podium. The huge crowd had doubled – all with cameras out – as Jake and I made ugly faces and the baby cried some more. It was a very weird experience, to add to what we’d already just seen, and I continue to wonder how many hideous photographs are now floating around Indian Facebook of these two Aussie tourists.

Escaping the crowds, we emptied an entire bottle of hand sanitizer onto our hands and ran to the nearest Bikaner-bound bus. We were safe.

Back in Bikaner, we headed for Chotu Motu Joshi again; we needed a lassi. There was a lot we wanted to see today, the Fort, Old Town, the Havelis… but we ended up simply walking to The Garden Café where we happened to meet Ali, the same guy from yesterday morning who met us at the station. Strangely enough, he knew we did not stay with the couch surfer, and furthermore, he knew where we WERE staying… he proudly told us that he knew exactly how many tourists had and were arriving in Bikaner today, where they were arriving from, where the tourists were staying, and conversely, how many tourists were leaving Bikaner today on the buses and trains. He explained he “has connections, and anyone in India that does business does too.” This makes me incredibly uncomfortable about traveling here , as though we are being constantly watched, followed, observed by those in the tourism industry, and all in a very sinister sort of way. It’s something I’ve started to suspect recently, after noticing sometimes people just seem know things about us, when really it seems impossible… but, Ali confirmed it, explaining the people at the station see the tourists leaving one destination/arriving at the next and make a phone call, then someone makes another phone call, and then another phone call, and then another… “That’s how we do business,” he said.

Chatting with Ali was an experience; he was able to answer our “taboo” questions about India, but I never felt quite sure what his motives were. It’s funny; he was proud to say that if we want to travel well here, we should lie about everything; who we are, what are names are, where we are from, what are jobs are, where we live, how many times we’ve been in India, where we are staying… basically, he explained “anytime someone talks to you, they want to know where you from, how long you be in India, where you come from, where you stay… simply so they can calculate how much money they can get out of you; how badly they can rip you off.” I felt really saddened by this, and my deflated feeling about traveling here was starting to come back.
Of course, I know this is absolutely not true of all Indian people – we have met some incredible people here – but it’s a shame that he was able to confidently – and proudly! – make such a generalized statement like this.

He showed us his shop – of course – but he was adamant he did not want to sell us anything. He then gave us a hand-made bag as a gift, but then explained that every one in town will know where this bag came from – his shop – and made us promise to tell every touter in the street who asked us the price, that we bought it for 600 rupees… Not sure what his intentions were, but when someone did later ask us, we didn’t tell them anything.

We left Ali eventually, feeling still unsure about what our meeting with him had been like; we just never were really able to trust him, even when he was being seemingly generous – or, is it that we just can’t seem to trust anyone here anymore?

We wandered about the old town, taking photographs and dodging cows and touters, looking at the beautiful havelis and old buildings, the market stalls and food being cooked. People all seemed to want a photograph of them taken; funny, how opposite it is for me.
Passing by a women’s clothing shop, I wandered in and ended up buying myself some Indian-style clothing; I’ve been told several times by locals and tourists alike, that wearing Indian clothing will take a little bit of the ‘edge’ off of the unwanted attention I draw in from way too many Indian men. Whilst some times I feel this attention is purely innocent and sheer interest, more often than not I am starting to feel very uncomfortable from the staring.

After my little shopping spree, we ended up walking all the way to the Bikaner Fort, where at night it was lit up and looked quite impressive. We never made it inside, but it was pretty impressive from a distance regardless.

From the fort, we flagged down a tuk tuk who drove us back to Vijay’s Guest house with his neon lights flashing and Hindi music BLEARING. I could barely hear when we stepped out, so naturally, I needed a chai from our favourite chai joint, complete with all the local men who loved to stare and were oddly desperate to know how much a chai would cost in Australia.

Back at the guest house, we were treated to a home cooked meal again before collecting our bags and waiting for our tuk tuk to the train station. Of course, minutes before we needed to be at the station, Jacob had a small accident; smashing a glass bottle accidentally and sending glass flying into his leg. Finally, our enormous medical kit came in handy! A smothering of betadine, some steri-strips and a piece of opsite and we were good to go, Jake a little worse for wear…

We boarded our overnight train – our 3AC sleeper class bunks were both top berths again – and lay under the thick covers whilst the air conditioning pumped full blast.
Bikaner had been an interesting destination, and I wondered what Jaipur would have in store for us.

Desert Girl and Camen Man India: 2 – 3.09.2013

Stiff all over from too many hours (for a novice) spent sitting [bouncing] on a camel’s back, exhausted from a sleepless night, covered in sand, sweat, sunscreen and insect repellant, smelling like a camel and suffering from terrifying flashbacks of having to squat behind a bush to relieve myself earlier that day, we had arrived back from 35 hours spent in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert… It was brilliant.

Driving out of Jaisalmer, 40-odd kilometers into the Thar Desert in an open jeep, at 8am it was already starting to get hot. Eventually, when the city ended and the landscape became a blur of various desert plants, herds of cows and goats, the occasional camel, a lot of red dirt and countless wind turbines, our  jeep parked and we met our “Desert Family”  for the next two days – Mr. Kahn, our camel man guide, and our three camels. Jake quickly forgot the name of his camel, but he was big and white and docile, just like Jake, so I like to now refer to the camel as JJ (Jacob Junior). My camel – Kalu – was the smallest of the lot, a little more tanned than JJ and a lot more stubborn. He had a rebellious streak and didn’t like to do what he was told; he preferred to do things in his own time and enjoyed winging every time he had to stand up or sit down; funny – sounds similar to me. Kalu, being the feisty rebel that he was, flicked me into the air every time he stood up, which was so fast I had to hold on each time with all my strength. Kalu was a handsome boy; he had cute ears and loved a good head pat every now and then, and especially loved when his saddle was removed and he could splay his back legs and stand in a hilarious position.
Mr. Kahn’s favourite camel was Victoria, so of course we made sure he rode him. Victoria was a big dark brown coloured boy who was obedient, calm and plodded along quite happily; much like Mr. Kahn himself.

Comfortable in our saddles (as comfortable as a camel’s back can get), together the three of us and our camels began our trek into the Thar desert – yep; we were finally here, bouncing about in our saddles in the heat of the harsh sun, living the Desert Girl and Camel Man dream…

IMG_0077

Desert Girl in the desert

The scenery was surprisingly green and plants, bushes and shrubs dotted most of the ground. Monsoon had been mighty this year, and as a result plants were flourishing – good for feeding the thousands of cows, goats and camels that trot about the Thar, herded by children and frail elderly alike. Amongst the shrubbery, thousands – literally – of wind turbines protruded high into the air, turning gracefully in the wind.

The heat bore down on us, but it was more than bearable; it was thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped at a “local desert village” which was more like a house in the middle of no where, where a grandmother and several men and naked babies were sitting in the sand. They gave us chai, yoghurt and a melon.

We stopped for lunch and “small siesta” under the shade of a large tree, where the camels were set free of their heavy saddles, in order to eat and mingle as they pleased. Mr. Kahn prepared us a lunch that was surprisingly varied, very authentic and full of flavor! We enjoyed some sort of Indian deep-fried snack made with lentil flour, onion, chilli and spices, and then had a large curry, fresh made chapatti and rice – all cooked over an open flame. Our meal was washed down with litre after litre of water, which we diligently sterilized with our Steri-Penyep, it finally came in handy. (Much unlike the Camel Man we saw who drank with his hands from the same filthy lake that the camels were drinking from. I think he may have possibly died from that mistake. If not, he needs a Steri-pen).
After lunch, dishes were hygienically scrubbed and washed with simply the desert sand (much to my horror) before we took shelter from the heat of the day and snoozed on a blanket.
Meanwhile the camels had escaped somewhere into the desert to feast on every possible bit of greenery, and finally around 3pm, Mr. Kahn made the trek to retrieve them whilst Jake and I packed up “camp.”

Camel Man, JJ, Desert Girl, Handsome Kalu and a very chilled Victoria

Camel Man, JJ, Desert Girl, Handsome Kalu and a very chilled Victoria

JJ and Victoria were happy enough sitting down to be re-saddled, chewing and smiling as Mr. Kahn loaded them back up with blankets, cooking utensils and 40 litres of water. My handsome Kalu, on the other hand, winged and complained before finally giving in, jerking me onto his back so quickly as if to say “take that!”… Camels are funny animals.

More camel riding, more wind turbines, more goats, sheep and cows being herded by children no older than ten or so…, a few more villages and the promise of desert sand dunes; we found ourselves heading further and further into the desert. Mr. Kahn entertained us by explaining important “Camel College Desert Knowledge” information, such as “No chapatti, No Chai, No Woman, No Cry,” “Full Power, 24 Hour, No Toilet, No Shower” and “No worry, have some Curry.” We are learning… slowly…
Our backs, legs and bottoms had had enough by around 5pm when we finally reached the incredible dunes. It was like a dream. Desert Girl (me) and Camel Man (Jake) were out of our saddles instantly (much to my handsome Kalu’s delight!) and running, sliding, jumping, crawling and surfing the endless dunes. Meanwhile, the camels once again got to trot off into the desert shrubbery to eat and frolic.

Desert Frolicking

Desert Frolicking

Sandy

Sandy

Desert Girl

Desert Girl

The wind blew the sand across the dunes in a magical flowing motion, and stepping into the dunes was like nothing I can describe. The music from Aladdin’s Arabian Nights was filling my head and we totally saw an Indian guy out in the dunes who looked like Jaffar… “Arabiannnn niiiiiiii-iiights…..”
We spent a good hour or so jumping in the dunes, watching the sun set, and comparing our fat camels with another safari group’s thin and injured ones (according to one of the guys on the tour who had to ride a camel with a painful looking hump).

"Arabiannnn Niiiights..."

“Arabiannnn Niiiights…”

As the sun went down, chai was served, along with curry and chapatti, Steri-Penned water and a decent amount of sand, which whipped across the desert in the wind. Then, with dinner eaten and the sun setting, Mr. Kanh decided he couldn’t be bothered with us two whities any more and went off to eat dinner with the other camel man down at his camp. Fantastic.

With no light and wind whipping up sand from every direction, everywhere, we were forced to get into bed: two thin mattresses and heavy blankets that, within only a few minutes of being set out, were now covered in more than an inch of sand. This is when things started to get a bit shit.
An attempt to block blowing sand using the camel saddles was feeble; and the big black desert beetles had come out – along with eighty thousand other insects and creepy crawlies – which all seemed to congregate around and on me! Using our scarves to cover our entire faces was almost useless; sand came from every direction and made its way through the material weavings.

Whilst I spent a happy couple of hours swatting insects, burying black beetles so they would no longer harass me, rubbing sand from my eyes and shaking inches of the stuff out of my hair, Jake was on animal watch. Since we’d spotted a group of wild dogs circling our camp and a happy camel who’d trotted over to watch us sleeping, and the fact that Mr. Khan had pissed off never to return, as it seemed, we were stuck in the dunes coming to the realization that actually, the desert is nice but this Desert Girl is probably more of a Civilisation Girl.

Finally, Mr. Kahn had to return – he’d spent a good few hours wandering the desert to retrieve our naughty camels, who had walked for kilometers away from our camp in order to get some good shrubs.  He didn’t seem worried about possible wild dog attacks, and instantly went to sleep. Oh. So no sitting around a fire listening to him sing and entertain us, like we were promised? Okay.

On account of the fact that I had earlier seen two wild dogs strutting near by, that my body was now covered in more than an inch of sand – which was growing by the minute! – and the fact that it was actually surprisingly cold in the desert, I didn’t sleep much that night… Desert Girl was more of a “Wishing it was Sun Rise Girl.”

Sun rise came and Mr. Kahn was busy making chai. I woke to what felt like an entire desert wedged under my eye lids and in my mouth. Desert Girl was a bit over the desert.

What I believe was once our beds for the evening, but is now covered in sand

What I believe was once our beds for the evening, but is now covered in sand

Mr. Kahn went and fetched the camels back from the desert shrubs where they had spent the early morning socializing and eating half of the bushes. JJ and Victoria sat happily as they were saddled, whilst my dear Kalu winged and complained – much like me about my sand filled eyes, mouth, hair, clothes, bum crack, shoes, backpack, camera…

On the saddles, our thighs and bottoms were already aching after only a few minutes. Oh, how I bloody love the desert.
We spent a good few hours walking and trotting – yes, trotting at a decent speed! – through the desert, which made our bums go from being quite painful to being in full blown agony.

"Look! No hands!"

“Look! No hands!”

We made a stop at a “Desert Gypsy Village” where we made the foolish mistake of getting off our camels. We were greeted by children who began begging before we could even stretch our legs, asking for everything; from the standard money, school pens and chocolates to tubes of henna, cigarettes, bottles for the malnourished naked baby, the clothing off my back, and for us to take photographs of them in return for money. They instantly, without him even noticing, opened Jake’s backpack and removed his carabina, and as a result, had to deal with Desert Girl’s growls of “DON’T TOUCH THAT!” They responded by snatching Jake’s good drink bottle from his hands.

Gypsy aka Beggar Village

Gypsy aka Beggar Village (Desert Girl is hiding behind the camels next to Mr. Kahn)

This “village” – which was essentially two mud huts and a family of impoverished beggars who spent the entire time harassing us – made me feel really saddened, and I was glad to be back on the saddle where Mr. Kahn simply stated “It’s best for you safe, you stay on camel.”… Aaaahh….Thanks for telling us that now… this information may have been more useful before we were bought here…

More trotting, more cows and goats, a few desert people who were obviously much better at being desert people than I was, countless wind turbines and relentless heat; we made it to our lunch stop where a group of desert people joined Mr. Kahn for a chit chat.
Mr. Kahn cooked us another delicious lunch (we made the chapatti) and gave us some more “Desert Knowledge at Camel College” – yep, we’re totally Desert people now!

Goaties! I call the black one "Lucy."

Goaties! I call the black ones “Lucy.”

We played uno and tried to let our aching legs and bums recover for a few hours in the shade, whilst Mr. Kahn talked with our fellow desert people and our camels strayed again from the camp to feast.

Can you find Camel Man in this photo?

Can you find Camel Man in this photo?

Eventually, as usual, Mr. Kahn went to retrieve the camels, who had trotted far off into the desert once again. When he returned almost an hour later, we asked him how he finds them. “I look the foot prints”. Far out!… we are definitely not Desert people…
As usual, JJ and Victoria were good sports about the re-saddling, whilst Kalu was whiney and quick to throw me about when he stood back up.

A couple more hours in the desert, and we were bought to the final stop. Thank goodness – my bum could not handle one more trot!
We waited for our Jeep to arrive whilst Mr. Kahn sang us his version of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, which goes something like “I am Camel Man, in the bloody sand, life is fantastic, bottom like plastic…” (he made it up himself apparently).

Finally, our Jeep arrived and we said goodbye to our Desert College teacher, Mr. Kahn. Walking over to the jeep with legs so sore I looked like a heavily pregnant woman walking, my bottom rejoiced as we hauled ourselves into the jeep…
40 minutes or so later we reached Jaisalmer, and as we passed a group of men sitting around a campfire in the dirt alongside twenty-odd cows, a few goats, a pig and amongst traffic that could kill, our driver said “welcome back to civilization!”…

Comfortably back in our hotel room, Desert Girl and Camel Man had had enough of the desert for now (possibly for a life time) but, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t love every minute of that experience… Okay, okay. I am lying. I hated the wild dogs.

And the insects.

But that’s all.

…Now, to wash the sand from my skin and sleep for a week.

Disappointing India: 26 – 27.08.13

Early to rise at around 4:15am, I was ready to curl back into bed and sleep all day and ignore the 6am train to Ajmer… but we didn’t, and instead, we packed our packs onto our backs, walked down the 70 stairs of our guest house and walked out into the cool darkness of a still quiet, sleeping Udaipur.

We got a tuk tuk to the station, bought a ticket from the counter (after being pushed in front of by countless people – yep; still trying to work out how queues in India actually work) and then took one look at the general 2nd class carriages, already brimming with people. How were we and our packs meant to even get on, let alone sit for five or so hours, was beyond me.
Thankfully, some reserved 2nd class seats were empty and we paid a few rupee extra for a seat of our own each. Anything is possible in India, as we keep finding out.

We spent an uncomfortable 5 hours being stared at by hundreds of pairs of unrelenting eyes, packed in to our seats along with 4 other boys who spent a decent portion of their time staring at my chest, pretending to look elsewhere when I caught them and gave them the eye.

We arrived in Ajmer and sunk a couple of chai whilst people photographed us, pretending to take photos of the train station – subtlety isn’t so well performed here, it seems. The stares kept coming, as well as a few smiles and laughs every now and again, as we made our way out of the station and were immediately pounced on by drivers. We decided to go straight to Pushkar, not too far from Ajmer.

Arriving into Pushkar, our driver was stopped by authorities and we were made to pay a “tourist toll” before we could enter the town. Fantastic, being extorted already. hmmm….what’s that sudden bitter taste in my mouth?

We found a cool guest house packed with travelers and bartered a room down from 600 to 400. Nice.
We soon discovered the travelers were a large group of Israelis who were intent on talking to only each other and no one else. Not so nice.
Regardless, we were here, and – albeit exhausted – we were ready to explore a new place.
Pushkar is a holy city, the central lake it’s beating heart. One of the few Brama temples in the world is located in Pushkar, and pilgrims come here from all over India and the world to bathe in the holy lake and visit the temple. Whilst heavily steeped in ancient tradition, rich in culture and religion, this place is also a buzzing tourist destination. We’d read, and been warned, about the touters in Pushkar, and we were well prepared… or were we?

Walking into town, we dodged cows and piglets (and Jake stepped in a massive cow shit) as we passed beautiful architecture with peeling paint and fine detailing. This beauty was set against touristic shops and touters begging for us to “yes come look here now come, you buy, what you want, come look, I have, good price, come look, what you want?” At one point a man shoved his hand into our face with some wilted tiny flowers and tried, aggressively, to get us to come to the lake to receive a blessing (which refused; we were well aware that would then be followed with a forced 1000 rupee “donation”). Women selling jewellery crowded me and cut me off, grabbing my arms from all angles and demanding me to buy. The main bazaar road was packed to the brim with pilgrims who stared at us hard, almost causing accidents when they continued to stare at us when they should’ve been concentrating on what was ahead of them, not behind. Children with babies on their hips asked us for money and put their fingers to their mouths, motioning for food. People dressed in orange cloaks and turbans demanded ten rupees from us, promising to not ask again if we gave them money. As we walked past, almost every shop keeper would attempt to lure us in; some simply demanded “you come here now.”
Aaah, no thanks.
Amongst all this craziness was an ocean of pilgrims and cows who filled the road, walking slowly towards the lake ghats and the temple.
Pushkar at a first glance seems beautiful, but it was exhausting within a few minutes.

For lunch, we’d heard great things about a health food place that served wholesome organix meals, and we ordered amazing sounding vegetable and tofu dishes that, when they came out more than an hour later, and more than half an hour apart, were very unappetizing. Disappointing.

The sun is hot here, and as we took our shoes off to walk down to the lake, the soles of our feet were burning within seconds. Hobbling towards the lake and ghats where people were bathing, the scene was spectacular but short lived; our feet were burned.

Exhausted and not at all in the mood to be stared at any longer, we’ve retreated to our guest house, away from the sellers and the shops and tourist tricksters. We ventured out later this evening to see if things are a bit calmer, which they were not.
We ate “falafels” with strange ingredients that were oddly delicious and watched pilgrims dressed in gold and glitter walk bare footed along the streets. We drank lots of chai and averted eye contact with the hundreds of people staring at us.

At the end of our first evening I was a little put off but keen to give Pushkar more of a chance; I was hoping my first impression of Pushkar won’t be my last..

Day two in Pushkar and I’ve gone from the whole “I love India and all it’s hecticness” to “I hate India; can someone direct me to the nearest International Airport – Departure lounge please.” That may be a slight over exaggeration, but it didn’t feel too drastic today when I was almost in tears.

We were keen to give Pushkar a second chance; it’s been said this place is a fantastic town to get some relaxation hours and some “shanti shanti” as they call it, but  it ended up that I felt nothing but stressed and uncomfortable in this town.

Planning to stay another night here, we ventured out and made a chai stop, where a greasy top-balding man with curly hair past his buttocks and a very tight tank top was pulling chai. Two chai thanks.
Sitting down, a lovely local began spontaneously performing a musical concert for us, whilst Jake sat smiling and I sat wondering how many rupees he was going to demand once he was finished playing.
He finished, demanded money, and I was forced to leave my chai and pay to escape – Jake still sitting there smiling and me hissing for him to move away before we get robbed. I wasn’t so much pissed off at the fact he’d demanded money as I was that someone had come between me and my chai!

Good morning Pushkar…

We headed to a roof top restaurant, the Laughing Buddha, where we met a fellow traveler and were harassed by a staff member who sure as shit did not seem like a laughing Buddha. He demanded we decide what we wanted to eat as soon as we sat down and hovered over us until we ordered, bot not before scowling at us to remove our shoes. He then served us horrible food and then charged us 100 rupees extra with no real reason and exclaimed he’d explained the extra cost at the start of our meal – which he had not. Furious, we were forced to pay and left – not laughing. Someone’s getting a very bad Trip Advisor review, that’s for sure.

Back in the street, dodging cow shit, beggars dressed as monkeys and people rattling cans in our faces and demanding money, Jake and I watched through our sun glasses lenses as every man stopped to stare at me in a very uncomfortable way. Suddenly, I felt very unsafe and insecure in this town, and the crowds who turned their heads to pierce me with their glare made me want to escape.

It was around the same time that the hundredth person demanded cash from us and shook metal canisters in our faces, and when Jake watched men openly staring at my breasts, that we decided it was time to leave Pushkar. We’d had enough of this place.

We booked through a travel agent and paid for a deluxe air conditioned bus – leaving at 5pm this evening from Ajmer – and had a quick meal at a falafel street eatery that ended up being the best meal we had in this town. We also booked a taxi to take us there, so we would be spared the hassle of trying to negotiate another bus with no luggage space and 300 people crammed in. That was the last thing we wanted to do… Oh, if only we’d known what was about to come…

Back at our guest house, they charged us the full room rate for tonight because we checked-out a couple of hours late, and we were sent off to Ajmer with not even a goodbye. They were lovely when we arrived, but very rude when we decided to leave earlier. Nice.

As we left Pushkar, with piglets playing in mounds of cow shit and the wafting smell of urine filling our nostrils, I realised this is a place I am never going to visit ever again… and I was completely fine with it. I felt sad that our experience here had not been positive, but I guess that goes with traveling.

At Ajmer bus station, we were more than an hour early for our 5pm bus. We checked with enquirys about which platform we needed to go to, and spent a happy hour and a half trying to avoid hundreds of beggars who constantly asked us for money, and the thousands of men staring at me; two things that have started to become a daily struggle. We sat in the filthy station at platform one while cows trotted about freely and eight million flies swarmed a half-dead stray dog who was sprawled below my feet; all the while feeling guilty about the poor beggars and saddened by our bad experience in Pushkar.

Our bus pulled up, the driver and then the conductor checked our tickets, we were waved onto the bus, our luggage was shoved into the luggage compartment, and then 10 rupees was demanded for a luggage fee that oddly, no local seemed to be handing over. So I stood there like a spoiled tourist, demanding to know why we deserve to be treated differently and shouting that this is extortion!

On the bus, our seats 12 and 13 were taken by locals who had tickets to prove it, and we were forced to sit at the front of the bus with a rising suspicion that something bad was about to happen.
The conductor checked our tickets again, and then again, and then again, and then again. He then spent a good hour discussing something about us in Hindi with the driver, before checking our tickets again, then again, and then acquiring the help of a local who spoke English and soon became our translator whilst I yelled and the local passengers stared.

English translator man ended up calling our travel agent, who gave him a bull shit story that he didn’t know who we were and that he lived in Jaipur. Lying travel agent man later called back and tried to accuse us of lying and taking a deluxe bus when we should’ve taken a government bus – even though we had a ticket saying we’d booked the deluxe.
Turns out our travel agent had cheated to us, given us a fake ticket, charged us a ridiculous price, and sent us on our way to deal with the fall out of getting on a deluxe air conditioned bus without actually having a valid ticket. Translator man spent his time translating my anger and yelling, which was mainly because the driver and conductor had both checked our tickets prior to boarding and told us to board, and were now trying to kick us off on a main stretch of highway somewhere in India at dusk. When I said it’s not our fault we got on and that we were told to by the conductor this was our bus, the response was “they are only human and they make mistake.”

Translator man laughed; I’m not sure what was so funny but I was on the brink of tears. I was mentally viewing a map of Asia and planning where we were going to escape to instead of staying in this country. Translator man told us we’d have to get off at the next station, and would have a 99% chance of getting another bus the rest of the way to Jodhpur. Awesome. Thoughts of having to sleep head to dirty foot with locals in an isolated bus station were starting to scare me, and I was not keen to get off.
This then lead to me yelling that how dare they think its okay to kick two foreigners off a bus in a country where we don’t speak the language, know no one, have no phone, and furthermore have no idea where we are.
I don’t think they actually gave a shit, as we were kicked off at some random station and shoved onto a Government bus; translator man gave us his business card and wished us well. Thanks…I guess?

The government bus was something out of my night mare, I was begging the translator man to let us pay to get back on the deluxe air conditioned bus. Surely this was a joke, right? Whilst trying not to get trampled by a cow or hit by one of the thirty buses that were reversing, we were grabbed and pulled onto a bus that was already moving and full to the brim and overflowing with people. People were yelling at us to sit, and I was yelling back “Where!?” Every possible seat was taken – some two seat sections had three people sitting – and the isles were so full of people every part of me was touching someone else. And this, I did not like. My backpack was smashing people in the face, and my front pack rubbing against others. Jake was weighed down with both big packs, so 40-odd kgs was resting on his shoulders and no doubt smashing a few more people about as we were pushed, shoved, pulled, squeezed and forced into two seats that were cleared for us two whities. Oh, the stares we got.

Finally in our seats, we were forced to spend the next four hours watching the clock, our packs, and the terrifying traffic whilst we sat, numb-bummed and cramped with 20kgs of bags across our laps and a man sleeping soundly on my shoulder. Oh, the stares we continued to get.

Hours passed and slowly the bus thinned out a little – enough to remove Jake’s pack and store it at the front of the bus. We passed strange sights and music blaring, the occasional urine smell, countless road-dwelling cows, sleeping bodies sprawled over news paper and thousands of people walking along the roadside wearing white and carrying massive flags.

Arriving into Jodhpur – still alive – was a feat on its own, and as we clambered off the bus in the dark with our packs heavy on our backs, we were in no mood for bull shit and scams. Especially me.
Foolish would be anyone who thought they could trick me right now.

But foolish was the tuk tuk driver who thought he could get 80 rupees out of me for a 35 rupee trip, by telling me it was “local India price.” He seemed a little shocked when the white girl calmly told him straight to stop lying – I’m not stupid and I’m not paying any more than 40 rupees, and if you even try to charge more you’ll lose your sale completely. Done. Yesssss. India may have been well in the lead, but I was now on the score board with a whopping one point. Things were looking up already in Jodhpur.

Alhough I asked for us to be taken to the clock tower in the central area of Jodhpur, foolish tuk tuk man made a phone call to someone which involved the words “Australian” and “Clock tower.” I immediately demanded, over and over, for him to stop driving right now, to which he responded “you married?”  over and over. Eventually, my screams for him to STOP THE TUK TUK RIGHT NOW! were taken into consideration, but not before he spat out of his tuk tuk and it landed on my arm, for which he then received another telling off from me.
We were taken to his brothers guest house (everyone with a guest house or a tuk tuk seems to be someone’s brother, or cousin, or uncle, or brother’s uncle, or brother’s uncle’s cousin here).
Shockingly, the room was nice and we were able to get a good price.
Of course, we had to argue with the driver to then give us change, and then, finally, before I could stop arguing with every Indian in my sight, I had to demand – at 11pm at night – for someone to please clean our toilet that was wee sodden and lined with a very large poo.

Oh India…

As I lay back on the rock that was our bed, I smiled to myself. The loathing India feelings were fleeting and I was starting to feel happy again.
Goodnight Jodhpur, here’s hoping tomorrow is going to be better.

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.

 

Sri Lankanisms

We’ve spent almost four weeks traveling in Sri Lanka, and have started to grow accustomed to the unique ways in which the country and people operate and live on a daily basis. It’s been interesting for us to think about the different lifestyle and culture that Sri Lanka offers, compared to that of our own, and note ‘special’ habits and customs that are so ingrained in this country and its people. We call these “Sri Lankanisms”, and there are quite a few we’ve discovered in just a small amount of time here. Here are a just a few of the things we’ve noted.

Snacks, baked goods and short eats are served in hand-made recycled paper bags, covered in children’s drawings or old school homework.

Men wear traditional sarongs, women wear beautiful coloured, sparkling saris.

No bus journey is complete without several vendors boarding the bus and selling their various goods. We’ve seen several different things being sold, from fried foods and cold drinks, magazines, lottery tickets, children’s picture books, hologram posters of various gods and deities, and even gold jewelry! (One vendor even went to the effort of hurling gold necklaces at random people in the moving bus, then asking those who were struck by the jewels to buy them!)

Hocking and spitting is common place.

Local men chew betel leaves, nuts and tobacco – then with practiced skill, spit large red chunks of gunk onto the pavement.

Conversations regularly go something like this:
Local: Hello! Where from!?
Us: Australia
Local: Ah!… Shane Warne/Ricky Ponting/ Adam Gilchrist/*insert something cricket-related here*!

Cricket is a whole new religion in its own right.

No shop, vendor, tuk tuk driver, or sales person seems to ever have change – not even small denominations such as coins (1, 2 and 5 rupees) or small notes (10, 20, 50, 100 rupees). It can be difficult to purchase anything without being given a “No have change” excuse or a very disapproving stare – especially after you get cash out of the ATM, which spits out 2,000 rupee notes.

The clanging and echoing sounds of kotthu roti being made are a familiar noise in Sri Lanka – you hear it being made before you see it.

Spontaneous buskers can be heard on the buses, singing whilst playing drums or tambourines.

Neon LED illuminated Buddhas and other deities decorate the front interior of most buses, flashing over and over to the rhythmic sounds of honking horns and loud Sinhalese music.

It’s perfectly acceptable to publicly pick your nose, pick your ears, pick your feet, pick your wedgie, adjust your testicles, hock and spit, cough on other people… you know; all that hygienic stuff.

There is no such thing as personal space. Especially on buses.

Furthermore, there is always room for more people on the bus. Always.

There seem to be four main shops: Pharmacies, Bakeries, Shoe Stores (Bata and DSI Brands are everywhere) and hole-in-the-wall eateries that double as general stores selling shampoo, razors and baby formula.

The roads are shared with buses, cars, vans, trucks, tuk tuks, tractors, pull-carts, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, cats, goats, chickens and more…

People of all ages and relationships hold hands – friends, adults, teenagers, the elderly…it’s endearing to see.

There is lots of hilarious advertising for strange things.

Like this awesome one...

Like this awesome one… “Winning the Plus Size style war”

and this one...

and this one…

Sri Lankans love a good, long hand-shake.

Random large speakers in obscure locations can sometimes be seen – more so, heard – at the strangest of times. In Ella – a sleepy little Hill Country town – a spontaneous produce market was in full swing, where locals in traditional dress were going about their business buying and selling. Opposite the market, random speakers were blaring “Me Love” by Sean Kingston. Strange.
We saw this type of thing again inside a Food City Supermarket, whilst people were just doing their grocery shopping.

Scary toilets.

How to make a cup of Sri Lankan Tea

Sri Lankan tea is considered some of the best in the world; there are hundreds of tea factories all over this little pearl of the Indian Ocean.Tea is sold every where, in shops,cafes, supermarkets, craft centres, factories, markets…

You’d assume that, seeing as tea is such a big deal in this country, there would be something special about the way Sri Lankans make and drink their tea…

And there is!

We’ve discovered the secret, and I’ve written a 5-step comprehensive guide for all to see:

1. Add tea bag to cup

2. Add hot water to cup

3. Add two – or three – teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk to cup

4. Add two – or three – HEAPED teaspoons of sugar to cup

5. Attempt to dissolve all that sugar in any remaining water.

Serve this to your guests, and you’ll be serving them tea the way Sri Lankans love to drink it.

Along with a high risk of diabetes.

Traumatic Visa Applications and Indian Touts

We’d been warned by many, been told horror stories and read about how traumatic it can be to try to organise and apply for an Indian Visa…

Our local travel agent warned us about the perils of applying for the Indian Visa without their help; describing the paper work as confusing, the wait-times as ridiculously long, the ques of people horrendous, and the embassy as so incredibly strict that without a travel agents signature of your approved itinerary, you’re bound to be rejected. We were encouraged to pay a $70.00 “convenience fee” each for them to organise our visas for us, as well  cover the extra cost of money orders necessary to pay for the $97.00 visas.

No thanks.

Those 160-odd dollars could stretch a looooong way in Asia… and if we can’t handle disorganised crowds of people, or expect constant convenience at all times, well.. we’re basically fucked in India, aren’t we?

One friend of ours warned of the crowds of people we would encounter at the Melbourne Indian Embassy, and staff so picky about application forms that they will do anything to make your application process more difficult.
Another told us we’d left it too late and would most likely have to pay a large fee to have it processed in a shorter amount of time.

We brushed off their caution, and decided to do it our way. If we can’t handle the visa application and the confines of the embassy, again, we may as well just give up now.

So we filled out the application online which was pretty straight forward.
We simply saved the application forms to PDF format and printed them, signing our names on the dotted line at the bottom of the forms. We each cut out a crisp, new passport photo depicting our mug-shot faces, and ticked off the nessecary check-list saying we had collected all the required documents.
Now we just needed to march ourselves down to the embassy with our paperwork, passports and a whopping $97.00…

So simple! Too simple…Where was all that hassle? Surely, that can’t be right!? The worst must be yet to come.

Monday morning, 8:30am, we stood silent in the lift as it took us to the 12th floor – to the Indian Visa Application Office. We were anticipating huge crowds of people, long-waits and unfriendly staff…

Ding! The lift opened and before we could even step out... “Yes, Hello Sir, yes, Hello Madame, hello, hello how are you? You want visa for India, you need passport photo? I can take, yes sir, I can take for you, only $10 per person, very cheaper than other place.”

Within the space of a few seconds in the Indian Embassy of Melbourne, yes sir, yes madame, we had been touted. Of all the things we were expecting, this had (foolishly) not crossed our minds. We had to smile.
Fuck! …already being touted and we haven’t even left the state, let a lone the country!… and we found that in itself reasonably shocking… we better get used to that shit quick smart and nip that unsettled feeling in the bud.

Escaping the tout, we walked into the empty, clean and silent visa office. We took a ticket from the self-service machine on the wall, and took a seat. Our number was called almost immediately, and together we walked to the desk… both wondering when the traumatic experience was going to start. Perhaps now?

“Hello. Forms and passports, please… You’re applying for a tourist visa? Okay… Jake you’ve made a small error on the form here, I will just change it now for you… Okay, It will be $97 per person… Can you sign here?… and here?… Cash or card? Paying seperately or together?… Okay, card please…”

Still so strangely, scarily… simple. No hassles. What is going on?… We’re still waiting for the drama to unfold.

With that, we were told our passports would be ready within 5 business days, and we would recieve a text message and an email letting us know when we could collect them. Within the space of a 5 whole, pleasent, pain-free minutes, we were done. We waved goodbye to our passports, $194.00 and to the man at the desk.

As we left the building I think both of us were in shock. Where the fuck was all that supposed garunteed commotion, hassle, bickering, inconvenience and turmoil? We’d mentally prepared ourselves for all of the above, as well as a two hour wait!

As we walked towards the lift feeling victorious, the tout came out of no where again, I guess hopeful we’d forgotten our passport photos afterall and required his very cheaper service. Thankfully, before he had time to pounce on us, the lift dinged again and some fresh prey began to exit into the corridor.
Mr. Touty no longer had time for us.

Just over 24 hours after we applied for our Indian visa, we’ve been notified our application is currently being processed. We’re still trying to figure out when the worst will come, but, somehow, it seems the worst of it was the smiling Mr. Touty.

Oh, India; we like you already.