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.

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A Week in Delhi, India, Part 1: 16 – 20.09.2013

Arriving into Delhi four hours later than we were expecting, thanks to train delays, I’d endured all the staring I felt I possibly could have and was grateful when the train finally pulled up in New Delhi station.  Packs heavy on our backs, we queued up (an Indian style queue, of course, which naturally involved cutting-in, pushing, shoving and no real order) and paid to leave our backpacks with the very inefficient and disinterested cloak room man.

Free of our packs, and still with no idea of what the hell our plan was now that we were here, we really needed to sort ourselves out. Firstly, we needed to post off the bag of stuff we’d accumulated in India and no longer wanted to carry around nor throw/give away, secondly, we needed to phone the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, and find out if we could apply for our visa there or if we’d have to do it here in India, and finally, we needed to call our couch surfing host and see if it was still okay for us to come along to her home. I was starting to question whether or not we should even bother couch surfing; I was ready to leave India and we contemplated just booking ourselves a flight to Nepal for tomorrow. However, we decided we needed to give Delhi a chance and both of us wanted to meet our couch surfing host, so we persevered.

Fighting our way through the crowds of touters and people obviously lying to our faces, we managed to find a public phone and call the Myanmar Embassy in Nepal, which promised we could organize our visas there within three working days. Done. I was in no mood to deal with anything in India that I didn’t have to at that moment. With the visa concern now resolved, we headed to Connaught’s Place –  a very rich area of Delhi filled with fancy shops and cafes and restaurants and well-dressed locals. We took solace briefly in a cafe and made a basic plan for what our next move would be; how much longer would we stay in India, when would we go to Nepal, should we get another iced coffee? All those sorts of difficult decisions that needed to be made.

With a bulging bag weighing me down, we decided out next priority was to post this bag of crap home. The post office was very near by, but of course that didn’t mean that the act of posting some items home was going to be a simple, stress-free, pain-free, hassle-free or quick process. But then again, by now I have learned that the above mentioned processes do not often exist here.

After I had gone to three counters, found myself a man who would wrap and sew my parcel together with calico and a needle and thread, found a pen, gone back to another two counters to get the correct piece of paper, gone back to the parcel sewing man, paid him and waited patiently whilst he sewed my already well-wrapped parcel shut, gone to another counter to attempt to find a felt-tip marker, found a marker, written the address, struggled to meet the requirements for a sender address in India (seeing as I am a tourist!), written a fake sender address, waited a bit more, filled out a form, waited in line a bit more, got told to fill in another form, waited a bit more, and then finally got told I had to go and get my visa and passport photocopied before the parcel could be sent, I realised that this whole “send my goods home to Australia thing” would not be so simple.
Down a few lane ways, in a shack under a leaking, damaged roof, a tiny Indian guy gladly photocopied my passport and visa for a whopping 10 rupees. Strutting back towards the counter with my documents, I was thinking this might actually be the end of the procedure and after more than an hour, my parcel might actually get processed, but no. It was then some cutting, some gluing (similar to primary school when the teachers give you the shitty, cheap glue that doesn’t stick to anything, except for the fact that in India they don’t even offer you a paint brush); I was forced to use my hands as a glue brush in an attempt to stick my very important documents to the material coating of my parcel that was about to travel across the world.
Handing over a parcel wrapped in calico that looked more like a kindergarten paper-mache/patchwork art work, I paid for the ‘slow service’ and watched as the staff member typed some information into a computer and then hurled my belongings over his shoulder onto the ground. My Indian post office ordeal was over… but who knows if that parcel will ever make it back to Australia.

Parcel sent, it was already mid afternoon and time to head out to our host’s home; a 50 minute train ride away. We were worried how we’d handle packed peak hour trains with our backpacks, especially after experiencing Mumbai’s metro madness…And then, after purchasing a ticket in a normal sort of way, we hopped onto a train that was not only modern, but also fast, clean and air conditioned; it very much reminded me of trains in Japan. For a second, I wondered if we were still in India, but then I saw a pile of men – one picking his nose – sitting all over each other on the designated ladies seat whilst three elderly women stood, and I was bought right back to reality.

At the station near by our host’s home, we were greeted with hugs and smiles. Her driver took us to her home, where we met her house mate Michiko who squealed with delight when she saw us and gave us a great big hug. Instantly, we felt at home.
Whilst we relaxed and showered – feeling disgusting after two days of not showering and sweating in the Indian heat – Masami and Michiko prepared us an incredible feast of home-cooked Indian curries. They invited their Japanese neighbour from upstairs, and together, the five of us enjoyed the company of new friends and amazing food.

Within just a few hours, the feeling of intense need to get out of India and away to Nepal as soon as possible began to diminish. We still didn’t know when we’d be leaving India, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow.

The following few days were spent in a really relaxed sort of manner, choosing to come and go as we pleased and take things a bit easier. Basically, it felt like we were attempting to recover here.

On our first night with our hosts we discovered their love for Vegemite, so on our first full day in Delhi we made it our mission to find a jar of the stuff for them. This search led us to Kahn Market, a high-end fancy area of Delhi where many diplomats, expats and tourists come to look through nice shops, eat and drink at fancy cafes, scour through book shops and purchase high quality foods from the many international supermarkets and grocery stores. Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate, quality imported cheeses and meats, jams, sauces, beer, and of course, our beloved Vegemite, were just some of the items lining the shelves. It was an interesting place to spend a few hours.

We discovered the INA market area a few stations away from Kahn Market, when we were searching for Dilli Haat – a food and craft market we’d wanted to visit. Missing Dilli Haat completely, we spent time wandering through INA instead, finding much of the same products as we did in Kahn Market – including a LOT of Vegemite – as well as other bits and pieces and other interesting things.

On our second evening with our hosts we had an Okonomiyaki Japanese feast – so much incredible Japanese food that we were all able to cook and eat and share together around their table. We loved being there and felt so welcomed and at home; I could feel our exhaustion starting to ease through new friendship, comfort and good, healthy food. Jacob and I had visited the supermarket earlier in the day with the hope to find ingredients to bake ANZAC buscits, but we had found none of the main ingredients and had instead found sugar, nutella, eggs and pomegranate – enough to make some kick-ass mini-pavalovas; Jacob hand-beating the egg whites and sugar for almost an hour. This dessert was a real winner, and over the next week or so with our hosts and anyone else who joined us for dinner, we all consumed too many mini pavs to count (or think about without feeling guilty and fat).

Soon after arriving in Delhi and meeting our hosts, our plans changed from leaving immediately to staying for a week: it was going to be my birthday on the 21st and why leave before then when we could stay and celebrate!? One of our host’s boyfriend was flying over from Japan and they were going away together for a few days, but she’d be back and all of us could celebrate together. It suddenly made no sense to leave early – we were having such a wonderful time, relaxing and recovering and eating and making new friends. I was also suffering from a horrible cold, and a few days were spent in a very low-key manner whilst I tried to recover; there was no way I was going to Japan in any less than 100% top condition.

Days were filled in easily, we came and went, took the train here and there when and if we chose to, we spent a lot of time cooking and even more time eating, talking late into the night sometimes, sharing music, movies, stories, culture, language and lots of home-made chai, chapatti and food. We were able to do little things we’d been missing, like washing our clothing in an actual washing machine, showering with hot water and cooking our own food. We cooked dinner one evening, and Jacob attempted to bake bread which, we learned the hard way, does not cook well in a convection oven. One evening was spent choking on the smoke coming from a loaf of bread that had cooked from the inside out, and caught fire. Lucky we’d all smelt it quickly, before any damage was caused! He’d prepared two balls of dough, and after the first mishap, a quick google search explained the best method to bake bread in that specific type of oven. The second loaf was more of a success.

We visited very few areas of Delhi during our few days there; often choosing respite over sight-seeing. I drank a lot of bubble cup, Jacob cooked a lot of chapatti and chai, our host cooked incredible foods and the three of us – sometimes four of us when the upstairs neighbour came down for a meal and a chat – had a lot of fun.

We visited Dilli Haat again one day where the momos were average and the crafts the same as everywhere else except much more expensive, and ventured into New Delhi station very briefly to check out the touristic area of Paraganj – which we very quickly left, but not before more foolish touters tried to mess with us and tell us we were apparently going the wrong way and should absolutely follow them as they are experts in this area (and no doubt at scamming money from naïve foreigners too). There’s no fooling these two whities any more!

Amazing how in just a few days of being away from the intensity of pollution, heavy traffic, touters, scammers, people harassing us and hoards of people, entering back into the sprawl of craziness left us overwhelmed, frustrated and impatient.

We went shopping nearby to where we were staying one day; I bought a pair of jeans and a jumper in preparation for Japan. Our clothing has become embedded with so much dirt to the point it can not be removed, and I refuse to walk around Japan in brown trekking pants that were once a light beige colour, and a streaky light-blue faded t-shirt that was once a dark navy colour. Besides, how could I pass up brand new Levi jeans for $25 AUD, when back home they’d cost me more than $100.

We arrived in Delhi on a Monday, the start of the working week, and by Friday evening, the end of the working week, Jacob and I had become quite at home with our host. Our second host was still away with her boyfriend, due back on Sunday. Saturday is my birthdayi, and Sunday is my non-birthday birthday; our host will be back with her boyfriend and we’re having a party. The details are being kept top secret, but I am so excited to be here with our little Japanese family in Delhi. It’s funny how things have a way of turning out. We needed this – we needed to end our time in India on a high with good people, healthy food and respite from the intensity and overload that India so often offers. I certainly feel that’s how things are happening here, and it was just so much luck that our paths crossed.

A note on India:

Have I mentioned how much we love India? Although sometimes it can be challenging here, and some parts of this culture are shocking and saddening, or simply unbelievable, but more often than not its just simply, indescribably amazing. Every day we’re learning a bit more, observing a bit more, trying to make sense of this country, the people, their beliefs and their ways of life. It’s surprising how much we are willing to adjust; not even consciously – just naturally adjusting to our surroundings and relaxing our ‘Western Standards’ – simply by experiencing and being immersed in all of India’s everything. It seems as though you can either flounder or flourish here, in the sense that you can either hate or love India. We are flourishing.

Every day we observe and learn new things; new behaviours, new traditions, what is acceptable here and how things work in often nonsensical and unfathomable ways… Sometimes India is inspiring, sometimes its challenging, sometimes it’s crushingly despairing, but it’s always exciting, always enthralling, always fascinating, and always incredible.

India is testing us, pushing us, confronting us and questioning the way we think and behave. Simple tasks like queuing to buy a ticket or sitting on the bus take on a whole new meaning and procedure here, and it’s an experience to ‘learn’ these things again. Sometimes, we are forced to step out of our comfort zones, but so far that’s never ended in a negative way.

Everything feels intoxicating here in India; the sounds and smells and sights captivate and exhilarate us, and also sometimes repulse us – often at the same time. Either way, India is like an addiction; we just want more and more of what this country has to offer.

Street stalls, tiny shops, markets, bazaars and food vendors feel like the beating heart of India, with everything and everyone working and functioning around these buzzing activities. Everyone has a job to do; the shoe makers, the umbrella fixers, the chai vendors, the touting tuk tuks, the fishmongers, the tailors, the launderers, the hat sellers, the hundreds of fried-goods vendors, the people… somehow they all work around and with each other in invisible unison, amongst honking horns, hectic traffic and an ocean of human bodies on the move.

The sounds! Oh, the sounds of India… Noise is constant here, silence is a rarity. Honking horns, two-stroke engines and buses accelerating set a beating base for the rhythmic Indian tune that never ends. Food vendors can be heard selling their goods, bicycle bells ding, men hock and spit, scraping sounds of brushing and sweeping marble floors grate against the chit-chat of locals. Cats mew and dogs converse, while touters yell their “Hello madams, you come look?” and “Yes, hello Sir you want tuk tuk?” Inquisitive locals yelling “Hello where you go!?” is a chorus we’ve become accustomed to, and sometimes we add to the tune by responding “Just walking.” For some reason, people don’t seem to grasp that concept.

Indian people are lovely. We notice their smiles before anything else (even when they’re trying to scam us) and often, those big smiles with white (or red pan-stained) teeth are infectious, and we end up instantly smiling back. The children love to say hello, and it’s not uncommon for people to come up to us, shake our hands and simply ask us (with those huge smiles) “where from?”
They speak like they are singing, and their spoken English sounds as if each word is dancing on their tongue before it emerges with unique, only-in-India word structure. I never tire of hearing them speak; especially their ‘cute’ descriptions such as “you feel the freeness”, “you eat good taste” and “that is mostly not possible.”
The Indian people (if they’re not trying to get our money – and sometimes even when they are) are welcoming us into their country with the utmost respect and again – the biggest smiles.

Family units seem very strong here and children seem to be the beating, lively pulse of every family. The babies and children are gorgeous – as all babies and children are – but these little ones are stunning; decorated in brightly coloured clothing, materials, shiny beads, henna tattoos, jewelry and lacy dresses. It seems like parents dress their children for every day activities as though they’re participating in a festival or parade of some kind. Children are everywhere, playing, laughing, and sometimes shockingly, working.
Friendship seems just as strong as family; people are connected and work together in big communities. Neighbours are friends,  adult friends hold hands, teenage girls chatter while walking arm in arm, and young boys carry on with their arms around their each others shoulders.

We spend most of our time marveling, smiling and laughing at what we’re experiencing; everything is so new and exciting, and we’re loving every minute. Of course, there are things we find shocking and distressing too; but never the less, we are observing what is happening around us, and we’re learning what life is like in this part of the world. We sometimes have to remind ourselves that this is not our culture, so we must just accept that it is different from our own.

Traffic is so hectic and unstructured at times, we cannot comprehend how it can actually work – but it does, much to our thumping hearts and sweaty palms delight. Watching the chaotic order unfold mesmerizes us, and offers us a glimpse of how these drivers and stretches of road somehow operate. One of the general rules we’ve observed is the attitude of “Fuck you all, I’m a bus – get out of my way now!” in which any sort of traffic – human, bikes and vehicles – disperses madly in every direction to accommodate for buses that rule the roads.

Poverty here is confronting; every day we encounter so many struggling people asking for money and food. People with horrifying disfigurements, disabilities and illnesses and injuries lay begging on the streets, and it’s impossible to not feel extreme sympathy for these people. We sometimes buy food and give it to people in need, but we don’t give money; as heartless as it may seem, how do you choose who to give and not to give to? Furthermore, unfortunately we have to wonder if the money is really even going to these helpless people, or into the pockets of someone else.

The pollution in the air is terrible – I imagine this thick, black cloud clogging the breath of every person, clogging the clouds and the skies and the oceans with its ever-growing filth. Sadly, sometimes I don’t have to imagine – I can literally see that thick black cloud. I breathe it in whilst wincing and gasping, hoping that somehow I’ll be able to catch a breath of fresh air if only I hold my breath a little longer.

We watch as people, over and over, finish with whatever they’re using and then simply throw it to the ground – our Western morals flinch at this littering every time with despair. The streets are lined with filth and waste, plastic, bottles, paper, waste and polystyrene dishes are strewn everywhere; it seems people are comfortable walking through rubbish filled streets, swimming in the ocean along with floating debris, and walking along beaches where pieces of trash outnumber the grains of sand. Bins are hard to come by, but the ones we see are never full; I guess people don’t regard waste management as important.
The other day on a train we watched a group of very well educated people, who all dressed impeccably and spoke fluent English, physically move from their seat to open the window of the train to throw their rubbish out, and it took everything I had not to tell them how disgusting and disappointing that is to see.

Almost just as shocking as the littering problem, is the fact that some people seem treat India as one big open-air toilet. People find anywhere and everywhere to relieve themselves; people shitting and urinating in the streets, on piles of rubbish, in train and bus stations, in back alleys, in bodies of water and in open fields is not an uncommon sight. An Indian man recently told us that sanitation and toilet facilities in India are “so really bad,” and it’s obvious; trying to find a functional toilet outside of a guest house that is a) in existence and b) not terrifying is no easy feat. The other day I was forced to use a urinal: literally, it was called a “Lady urinal.” I don’t even know how to use the squat toilets properly, let alone a terrifying “Lady Urinal”!

Dangerous driving, poverty, pollution, littering and scary toilets aside; we are so excited and thrilled to be here. We’re learning, we’re observing, we’re [starting to] understand, we’re exploring, and we’re loving every minute.

A Taste of Asia

It’s probably obvious by now, that we love Asia. We heart it with all our might; especially the people, the cultures and the foods!

I was feeling terrible yesterday; homesick for Asia, and as such, just ‘happened’ to end up at the Asian grocery store in the CBD.

Strolling through the isles, familiar smells filled my nostrils and the sight of some of the products made me feel really nostalgic.
I ended up walking out with just a bottle of ‘Oishi Green Tea’, and felt a lot better instantly. This tea had been a staple for us during or Asia trip, and when I fell violently ill for several days, Oishi was the only thing I could keep down. Ever since, I hae had cravings for it.
That, and Yakkult…

All this nostalgia got me thinking about the miriad of different foods (common and not so common) that we fell in love with while abroad.

…In Laos, ‘Laughing Cow’ cheese, baguettes and fruit shakes fast became ‘the usual’, replaced further North with hawker style foods and lots of rice. Oreos – they were our staple snack throughout Laos; cheap cheap and readily available no matter how remote we were. Larp filled with fresh herbs and sticky rice was a dream dish, and warm Lao bread is a must eat if you happen to stumble across it on a menu! (Hard to find!)…
We had delicious smokey grilled chicken on bamboo skewers, and lots of noodle-y dishes, which always left our stomachs satisfied. Often, we washed down our meals with either a yakkult, a cup of bitter, strong black coffee, or a big Beer Lao.

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…In Thailand, we ate copious amounts of cut fruit, whole pineapples and freshly squeezed pommegranate juices. Yakkult, Bubble Cup and fresh Thai iced coffee/tea were our daily drinks.
Insects were a nice experience, but mango and sticky rice was a real treat. Most of our other meals came from hawker stalls, where we stood eating, surrounded by smoke and BBQ smells.

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…In Cambodia, Em fell inlove with a vegetarian hawker food – spinach, garlic and ginger wrapped in a pummelled rice dough and fried until golden brown, and the inside veggies cooked through. The plump stall owner promised, in broken English, he would be in the same spot each night, but unfortunately, was never to be seen again. Crushing.
We came across fresh sun-dried bananas, fresh banana candies, and fresh BBQ’d banana – all were eaten almost as quickly as they were discovered.
Jake salivated over some salty doughnut thing (really, any sort of doughnut), and we found delicious treats and delacacies and random foods on every street corner and at every second market stall.
We gorged on mounds of fresh Kep crab, and still grind our Kampot-grown (and bought) pepper onto our meals.

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…In Singapore and Malaysia; dahl, roti, naan and teh tarik were readily available, and were a daily feast for us. Nasi Lemnak saw Em devour blue coloured rice, and the pineapple cookies were so delicious!
Chendol and Ice Kechung were savoured treats, with joy in every spoon of the grass jelly and weird beans.
Banana-leaf meals were a real experience, and downtown China Town and Little India let us explore more of what the countries big cities had to offer.

…In Japan, everything we ate was a piece of art and tasted as such; amazing – it’s impossible to say what the best meal there was; there were too many to count!
But, it was those little things – the egg cubes on a stick, the sushi rice triangle-shaped snack things, the interesting flavoured ice creams, conveyor belt sushi and sheets of sea weed that were our ‘go-to snacks.’
Green tea and Royal Milk Tea from a can, hot or cold, were the drinks of choice.
The tempura melted in our mouths, we drooled over the okonomiyaki frying on hotplates infront of us, the takoyaki balls were incredible, and the ramen left us slopping and slurping….

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…Come to think of it, really we have had hardly any mediocre or ‘bad’ meals whilst travelling in Asia. Food was, and is a rich experience for us, and something we really enjoy exploring. It is important to us to see and taste  local flavours and traditions; to eat what the locals eat (within reason – no beating snake hearts for us, thank you). Meals bring people together. Many times, eating and sharing a meal was an unforgettable experience: from simple grilled street food skewers to a Japanese banquet.

We honestly can not wait to see and taste more of the foods of Asia.

We’d love to hear from you: What were your favourite foods and ‘go-to’ snacks, drinks, sweets and meals whilst you were travelling the globe? What foods and drinks would/wouldn’t you reccomend?

Happy eating. 

A Stranger’s Offering from the Heart

I’ve always found that when travelling, people are my best insight into a country. I can’t say that about every person I’ve met, of course, but as a general ‘rule’, if you can call it that. I love to people watch, and try to go where the locals go… the kindness of strangers can be inspiring.

Whilst in Laos last year, I fell in love with the people. Their relaxed nature (even though they drive in a chaotic manner), their smiles that light up their entire faces, their generosity, and their friendliness despite large language barriers was heart-warming. We felt welcomed in Laos, for our entire stay there, and left with beautiful memories. One such memory in Laos, will remain with me forever…

An early morning in Luang Prabang, myself, Jake and a fellow travel buddy of ours hired some bikes (10,000 kip for the day! – cheap, cheap!) with the idea we would ride out of town to a wet market that was not well-known to tourists. We rode through sleepy streets and temples, waving to the orange-clad monks as we cycled in the morning heat. Jake’s bike was playing up a bit, and we occasionally had to stop so he could try to fix it. A little frustrating, but for 10,000 kip, what could you expect really?…
We rode a bit further out, and onto the main road, cycling next to tuk-tuks, motos, cars and trucks. Jake’s bike chain kept sticking, and started making it almost impossible to ride.
I always give him shit about what happened next, and for him, in hindsight, it’s quite funny… basically, he cracked a tantie, and threw his bike to the ground. Ha! poor guy…

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Now, for anyone whose been to S.E. Asia, you’ll know that motorbike mechanic shops and general ‘fix it’ shops line the dusty roads, with tools and tyres and spare parts and bits and pieces and fuel conveniently spread all over the place – organised chaos, really. It made the situation for Jake (for me it was simply hilarious) much easier – the first mechanic shop we saw, we rode up to and hopped off our bikes.

There were two men sitting on tiny plastic children’s stools at the front of the shop; a younger Lao guy, and an older, portly Lao man (who, instantly took his little white singlet off when he saw us arrive??). They were sitting down to eat breakfast, and we didn’t want to interrupt them too much. Jake asked if he could borrow a tool to fix his bike, which was met with a blank stare. Smiles and body language went a long way…. The portly man quickly left the front of his shop, promptly returning with a cute little tool box. Smiles all round, and the portly man went back to eating his breakfast with younger guy.

While Jake was fixing his bike, travel buddy and I stood at the front of the shop, which met with the main road, watching the passers by. I turned to watch the two men, and to look at what kind of food they were eating; a large bowl of communal sticky rice, a bowl of asian greens of some description, and a big bowl of something chunky and brown…

I walked over to the men and asked “What are you eating?” and here in lies the beauty of the story…

No sooner had I asked, the younger guy looked up at me with a big smile, and shirtless portly man was up and shoving a bowl into my hand. He put a heap of rice into my bowl, filled it some more with the cabbagy greens, dipped some chopsicks into the brown goo and shoved a piece of something into my face… I took hold of the bowl and chopsticks, somewhat shocked and amazed, while my travel buddy and I laughed. Shirtless man was busy re-arranging chairs, offering me his, and fetching another for my buddy, along with another bowl and set of chopsticks. We laughed as they pointed egarly for us to sit with them, and with no languge other than smiles and hand gestures to communicate with, we both sat down.

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Shirtless man was smiling, offering us more and more; gesturing with his hands, before I had even taken my first bite. I felt so guilty for intruding on their beautiful morning, but so lucky and so welcomed by these two generous strangers. I looked at the rice; so sticky and fresh, and the cabbage – coated in just the right amount of chilli… and then I looked more closely at the brown goo. I looked from the goo, to my buddy, to the goo, to the young Lao guy. He put his hand to his chest, where his heart was, and the smiling shirtless guy grinned and nodded proudly. Oh shit, it’s heart.

They watched us, almost proudly, as we sat there with our bowls. Shirtless man must’ve thought I didn’t have enough food, as he quickly came over, took my chopsticks, and quickly added 6 or 7 more pieces of heart to my bowl. Excellent, I thought, I was hoping he’d do that!…
They smiled and ate, and smiled at us some more, and as travel buddy and I anxiously looked at the heart, the supportive nods from the two Lao men told us that we were not leaving without eating some heart. So, with a foolish thought of “ah, fuck it, let’s just eat it’ (that’s not a good attitude to adopt when eating foreign foods abroad in developing countries), we put the chopsticks to our mouths, and swallowed whole, the goo-looking heart.

The two men were pleased, and chatted together. Whilst they wern’t looking, with skill and grace, I swiftly removed the other pieces of heart from my bowl, and placed them back into the communal pot of goo. I did, however, finish off my rice and cabbage. Delicious, I must say.

We continued to sit with them, eating and smiling. Jake finished his bike repairs, and we finished our rice bowls. We thanked the men over and over again, and offered them money for their generosity and food. It was met with refusal; they wouldn’t take our money. We left them with smiles and waves, and we rode away with full stomachs and full hearts… literally.

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We carried on our journey and arrived at the wet market, bike drama-free. Exploring the market lanes, we came accross all sorts of foods and things we’d never seen. It was amazing to see; we never get tired of visiting wet markets. The fresh produce was astounding, fruits, vegetables, dry goods, tofus, rice; such an abundance of food!… we got to the fish and meat section…. and that’s where I saw it. The heart. It was there, just staring at me… I imagined it beating wildly. I patted my stomach, which seemed to have quietly shat itself, and gently cooed to it “Shhh…It’s okay my love, mummy will get you a yakkult and an iced tea. That will solve all your problems…”

And it did.

Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan

Last year in September/October, I spent two glorious weeks in Japan, travelling with my amazing mother.
We arrived into Tokyo with eyes wide open, so excited to embark on the next two weeks of travelling together in this inviting country.

There were a couple of things we noticed instantly about Japan: the friendliness of the people, and the amazing public transportation… these two wonderful characteristics of Japan were constants throughout our short-lived travels there.

Stepping out into the fresh air of Tokyo, it felt spectacular to finally be there. Japan is a country I’ve been dreaming about for many years, and to set foot in it felt similar to coming ‘home.’ This trip had, within a matter of minutes, confirmed that Japan is my ‘spiritual homeland,’ and I was instantly, madly, head over heels in love.

The next two weeks were spent filling every possible minute with new experiences and different places, and my mum and I had such an amazing time travelling together – we can not wait to go back to Japan.

Months on since returning, Japan has never really left my mind. It’s one of those ‘dream countries’ for me, and I know it’s somewhere I’ll return to over and over again
I’m always re-living memories and looking back over photographs of the trip time and time again, and so decided I should do a ‘Top 10 Picks’ about my Japan trip… So, here it goes: Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan!

1. Food! – What more can I say; it’ absolutely takes the number one spot. Everywhere we went, from street vendors and market stalls, to sushi trains, tempura bars and ramen shops, train station bento boxes and stand-and-eat curry shops, food courts and supermarkets… The food was always incredible; served like it was a piece of art. The tempura was melt-in-your-mouth, the Hida Beef steam buns were to-die-for, and salmon and tuna sashimi skewers with soy, lemon and sesame seeds has left me dreaming for more… Food was one of our biggest experiences in Japan – we tried the local specialties wherever we went, and always without ever breaking the budget!

2. The People! – The people in Japan are unforgettable. From locals in the street, commuters on the trains, shop assistants, information assistants, train station assistants… everyone was so helpful. People went out of their way to make sure you were okay. I once asked a lady on the train if this train was going to a certain destination. She got off the train, found a train station attendant, asked him, and then got back on and told us where to go instead, meanwhile, her own train was just about to depart!… I remember another time I dropped my train ticket on the ground, and another commuter way down the carriage saw. He walked all the way down the carriage, picked it up and gave it back to me. I recall thinking “I don’t think this would happen back home.” The politeness of people, and the absolute respect they showed not just to us but to everyone else was astounding. People respected one another – Tokyo station at peak hour, with millions of commuters trying to get home, was a peaceful flow of people, unlike back home with people racing and pushing and darting and cutting-off one another. People watching was a great activity to undertake whilst in Japan; they are inspiring.

3. The Culture! – Japan’s culture is rich, ancient, traditional, modern, new, old, exquisite, an art form, precise, a little bit odd at times but always interesting, and absolutely inspiring. The food, the music, the clothing, the sports, the festivals, the traditions, the way-of-life, the oh-so-mystical geishas, tea ceremonies, sugar cakes, gift giving, comics and characters, neon signs, shopping…and then everything else and more. Impossible to experience it all in just two weeks, but we scratched the surface.

4. Takayama! – Words can not express my love for Takayama. It is simple; you MUST visit this incredible small city, and fall in love with it just as I have. The people, the markets, the river, the preserved lane ways, the food, the shops, the scenery, the guest houses, the strange ice-cream flavours, the Hida beef steam buns, the sarubobo dolls (go there, and you’ll know what I am talking about), the art and crafts, sake brewers, the exquisite chop sticks and hand-made items… I could continue, but it’s making me homesick.

5. Tokyo! – Tokyo is so much fun; it really is a paradise for children and adults alike (and for people like me who are children in adult bodies). The noise, the colour, the hustle and bustle of a busy but gentle city. The trains that take you wherever you want to go, and send you to new and interesting places. You could spend weeks just finding new neighbourhoods and exploring… meeting and watching the locals, the sub-cultures, the groups of girls in strange costumes, and the dogs paraded around in prams, dressed in the latest upmarket fashions…
Go early for the markets, explore local supermarkets, if shopping is your thing visit the many mega malls, or go at night to see a skyline of neon flashing and moving signs…Get lost, explore, eat, listen, see, smile, share… wherever you go, you’ll find history and modern life merging, and it is never ever boring.

6. Kyoto! – Kyoto is famous, of course, and we along with probably every other tourist fell in love. But the highlight for us was found in wandering about with no time-table, no schedule, watching people; tourists and locals. It seemed, for us, you didn’t have to really do much in Kyoto to be surrounded by culture and life, and to be able to enjoy yourself. There is a beauty and magic that can be found wherever you look…
Oh! and those sashimi skewers at Nishiki Market are still making me drool!…

7. Nara! – Who doesn’t love incredible scenery, delicious food, friendly people, and petting deer after deer after deer! I do! I do! Nara is a whole lot of fun, combined with ancient tradition, temples, stone lanterns, culture, religion, beliefs, practices…, yummy food, great guest houses, and a whole lot of cracker-loving deer!!! Nara was a highlight all round, but the walking tour we took gave us insight into temples and religion in Japan that we would’ve otherwise been blind to.
Tip: Get some deer crackers and get snap-happy with your camera!

8. Mt. Koya San! – High up on the mountains, you can instantly feel the spirit of the place deep within. Steeped in ancient tradition and spiritual practice and beliefs, this is a place I highly recommend to anyone. You can stay in temple lodging like most tourists will, and experience amazing vegetarian food, tatami mats, onsens and a 5am wake up call to watch traditional ceremonies taking place. Walk amongst Mt. Koya Sans incredible cemetary, and feel the energy around you. In that sort of incredible environment, it’s hard not to…
Tip: There is a cafe on the main street; a hippie looking Japanese guy makes the best Chai Latte I’ve ever had… we had 4 or 5 – indulgence at its finest, I know, but oh so worth it.

9. Osaka, Dotombori! – Get ready for a feast of Okonomiyaki served to you on a grill, and Takoyaki balls like you’ve never eaten before. A foodies paradise, we did not have enough time here. The people are trendy, the cars are flashy, the hair-styles are high, and the fashion is the latest. The starbucks was never empty, and as the sun set on Dotombori Street, the neon lights and mechanical crabs came alive. People are everywhere, and you can hear the pachinco machines loud and clear as they ring out whenever the doors open. There are dog clothing shops, and you’ll find the weird and whacky. Grab yourself some pumpkin flavoured ice cream, and enjoy your time there into the night…
Tip: If you’re interested, or even if you’re not…head to Osaka Aquarium. Children and Adults (and me, the child-adult) will love the amazing displays. Who can say no to a smiling puffer fish?

10. Public Transport! – It’s pretty much a guarantee that if I’m using public transport at home, I’ll experience delays or cancellations. People graffiti the walls of the train, people are loud, rude, put their feet up, curse and carry on, and are just generally not so considerate of anyone other than themselves. Come to Japan, take a train, and for me, it was like entering a whole new world. Pristine trains that arrive to the second, conductors who bow and take their hat off as they leave each carriage, polite and respectful commuters, and travel that is incredibly fast! Japan trains are like a dream.

What did you love about Japan?

Our Top 10 Picks: Reasons to Travel

Hard to believe it’s already March – I thought Christmas was just last week…? At least, it sure felt that way!
12 months ago today, we arrived back in Australia after backpacking in S.E. Asia for just 6 short, but 6 incredible weeks. Ever since then we’ve been dreaming of, and talking about “our next big trip.” We’re obsessed; we love to travel. Why?… here are our Top 10 Picks for ‘Our Reasons for Travel:’

1. Culture! – We’re culture buffs, and we love to get in amongst the local culture, traditions and customs. We love learning about different cultures and the way of life for people in different countries. Asia is so exciting in this respect – there is so much to learn and discover, and to appreciate and admire when it comes to learning about and experiencing culture. We love to simply ‘people watch’ – it gives incredible insight into the day-to-day lives of people, and it teaches us something.

2. Food! – We are wanna-be Asian chefs; anyone who looks at the cookbooks in our bookshelf, the ‘Asian Food’ section in our pantry, or at Jake’s ever-growing herb garden, will quickly realise this. We LOVE Asian food – the herbs and spices, the sauces and aromas, the cooking methods, the foreign looking vegetables and other things we probably aren’t pronouncing correctly, but add to our dishes anyway…
We love to eat where the locals do, sample hawker foods, participate in cooking classes, and eat the local specialties. We’re food obsessed; we feel it’s a big part of experiencing a country’s culture and way of life, and it’s really important to us that we try (almost everything…) when given the opportunity.

3. New Perspectives! When we first travelled to Asia, both of us grossly underestimated how life-changing it would, and can be. But of course it’s not just in Asia – travel anywhere has the ability to give people a new perspective; ‘open your eyes’ so to speak. It isn’t until we experience situations, or witness events that alter us, and affect us in some way, that our perspective is changed; and usually, this is a really positive experience!

4. Learning Experiences! – How much have we learned from travelling? So much; and what we have learned is invaluable; it’s not stuff you can read in text books, or learn in lecture theatres. A lot of the time, it’s not things you can learn by being told by someone else. It’s the people you meet and the things you do yourself, experience yourself, witness yourself, and achieve yourself, that teach you. It’s those life experiences that you learn from, that hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.

5. New Experiences! – Cliche? Yes, but oh so true. How often in your life can you watch the sun rise over ancient temples, or eat heart stew and rice at a local’s house in Laos? It’s not that often I’ve been able to dance with the Khmers on the river banks of Phnom Penh, or that Jake has got to drink beer with his tuk-tuk driver and their extended family. We’ve seen down pours of rain that have caused Phnom Penh flood in a matter of minutes, and  ran through the streets of Bangkok with water up to our thighs. We’ve eaten street food that was incredible, and street food that made us sick. We’ve watched monk processions, and lit incense at memorials.
Whatever we’ve done, we’ve tried to make the most of it, appreciate it, and remember the experience for what it was.

6. Meeting New People and Making New Friends! – We are social people. We love meeting new people; be it new friends for the evening, the week, the month, or for life. We love talking with the locals, communicating (or trying to) with silly faces and exaggerated hand gestures. Bartering over the price of fruit at the wet markets, or chatting over a beer with our new” house mates” in our dorm rooms. People are so interesting, and the more you talk to them, the more you learn about them, yourself, and the world. We’re going travelling together, but we’re also going with many, many friends… we just haven’t met them yet!

7. Adventure! – We love a good thrill.  We (usually) don’t mind getting a bit lost in a maze of little alley ways and old town squares, as long as there are interesting people to watch, beautiful buildings to be seen, and interesting sights on display. Be it zip lining through the tree tops, or getting caught in the masses at a local bazar, we can’t wait for new and exciting adventures.

8. History and Architecture! – We love to learn about the history of the countries we are travelling in, and marvel at the architecture. When we learn more about the history of the place we are in, we feel we can better appreciate where it has come from and where it is now. Not only do we gain insight into the country, but also about its culture, food, way of life, it’s people, beliefs, and – about the architecture!

9. Challenges! – Travel challenges you; physically, emotionally and mentally. You are often pushed to your limits or put into uncomfortable, awkward or challenging situations. These can be character building and help you to grow as a person. In the past, being pushed to our limits travelling has had some incredible positives, and been the base for some amazing experiences! We like challenges! (Most of the time!)

10. Facing Fears! – There are things we’ve done while traveling that have scared us. And then we got through them. It all comes back to learning experiences, and facing your fears and coming out the other side, better than you were before. (You hope!) There are things about our upcoming trip that scare us, but maybe it’s because we’re frightened of the unknown. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be really rewarding, and that is exciting.

What are your reasons for travel?

Happy travels.