Golden Myanmar: 10.11.2013

We’d arrived early into Yangon after an overnight bus from Inle Lake and had shared a taxi back to the same guest house we’d first stayed in on our arrival here in Myanmar. Matt was also staying at the same place so we ended up having breakfast together and made plans to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda this afternoon and evening.

Once we’d checked into our room, showered and started feeling remotely human again after the over night bus ride with little sleep, we ventured out into the streets of Yangon. I was keen to find a certain shop I’d researched so we took a taxi to a mall where this shop supposedly was. No luck.
Another taxi and we arrived at “Scotch Market” – a market that is massive and diverse in what it sells, catering to tourists and locals alike (although, I think they are two very separate areas). It was evident before we even barely walked through the entrance that the prices were highly inflated tourist prices and we were pretty happy to not buy the $300 USD miniature statue of Buddha, nor the antique something a rather for $500 USD. Every sales person wanted us to buy gems or jade stone, gold, silver, antiques, fabrics, clothing, shoes, local goods, everything and anything – and of course, they would promise profusely to give good price and big discount.

The market was okay; we ran into Matt – we keep running into him – and had a quick chat before deciding we’d had enough of the touting and jade scams. On exiting the market we came across a lady selling some sort of street food snack – a local sweet – that involved some sort of sweet bean in a rice covering. It was half-decent.
Whilst I think some Burmese food is really incredible (like Shan Noodles and Shan Tofu Salad), I’ve noticed the food in Myanmar as a general rule is lacking something, and more often than not, a little bit more on the bland and ridiculously oily side…

We soon left the market area and walked through the streets, navigating our way to a famous Indian curd and sweet shop. We found the shop and ordered ourselves a lassi each which was probably the closest we’ve come to finding authentic Indian food/drink outside of India.
Although it was boiling hot outside and we were quickly drenched in sweat, it was a pleasure and a joy to walk through the streets of Yangon. I feel safe here and I like the old, weathered buildings. I like the people and the traffic, the food stalls on the streets and the miniature chairs. The streets are easy to navigate too – they go by numbers such as 19th, 20th, 21st etc.
It’s nice to end in the city we started in after travelling throughout other areas of Myanmar – I feel we’ve returned with a different view of the city and more of an understanding.

We stopped by a noodle shop that was supposed to be one of the better places (according to our almost useless guide book) to eat at but the food was just barely okay; I ordered something and was bought out something completely different and five times the price, meanwhile, the owner didn’t understand any English when I said it might not be what I ordered, but then very fluently tried to sell me her amazing guide services… We decided again, after countless times previously, we are ditching the guide book and it’s outdated and unreliable information.

Late afternoon we met up with Matt in our guest house lobby and caught a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda together for the evening to watch the sun set. Previously when we’d first arrived in Yangon we’d decided to ask other travellers if this pagoda was worth paying to visit; seeing as there are thousands upon thousands of pagodas in Myanmar and we were also going to Bagan, we wondered if it was more spectacular… as it turns out, our three hours spent there has become a true highlight of our time in Myanmar. It was pretty spectacular sight – especially as day turned to night and the massive golden pagoda shined and glowed in the changing light and lit up when the sky turned a royal then dark blue.

Our bare feet soaked up the heat of the sun through the tiles on the ground as we walked throughout the pagoda grounds. The area was just so massive and the pagoda was just so spectacular and impressive. The gold was shining from every angle in the sun light and surrounded by so many other religious statues and areas for people to worship.
Whilst we didn’t understand the religious ceremonies, rituals, practices and monuments, it was fascinating to watch everyone practicing their religion and spirituality. It felt very special to be able to witness and be surrounded by this religion that is such an integral part of the local’s lives.
Watching monks meditating, people praying, people offering gifts and volunteers spending their time to ensure the areas of the pagoda were kept in good condition was very humbling.

What I especially loved seeing was the locals and families who had come to the pagoda with large containers of food, blankets to sit on and plates to eat on. So many families were sitting in groups eating in the surroundings of the pagoda, the social family and community aspects of this pagoda really stood out to me and it was really quite a beautiful part of our experience there.

Watching the sky turning from daylight to a royal blue to dark, and the pagoda go from a shining gold to being lit up against the night sky was spectacular, and we were grateful for the opportunity to see this sight at this time of the day.

Once the sky had turned to dark and after more than three hours at the Shwedagon pagoda, we left and walked a few kilometres to 19th street, a street famous for hawker and street food stalls and open grills.
The entire street was packed with people eating and grilling, every eatery had a stall of fresh skewers and touters keen for business.

It was enjoyable for us to be out in the fun and bustling night-time atmosphere and a cool experience with good company. It’s Matt’s last night in Myanmar as he returns to the UK tomorrow evening.

Late evening the three of us took a walk from 19th back to our guest house on 54th street. After little sleep on last nights bus ride and a full on day today, we were in bed and asleep by 9pm.

Tomorrow is our final day in Myanmar and it’s hard to believe; our time here has been incredible and time has flown…

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Varanasi: Confronting India: 13 – 15.09.2013

Varanasi is known to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and also the holiest city in the world. Each of these statuses is impressive on it’s own, and it’s no wonder this magnificent and mysterious city attracts so many domestic and international tourists, on top of the millions of pilgrims and devotees. Love it or hate it, this chaotic, dirty, ancient and incredibly religious city is not for the feint hearted. Every one of our senses was heightened here in Varanasi – we could see, feel, hear and smell the life, death and deep religion surrounding us; there was not one moment outside the confines of our guest house that we weren’t immersed in Varanasi’s captivating magic. We could see it in the people and the buildings, along the ghats and in the river. We could feel it surrounding us as if the deep religion was physically moving; it was in the air and on our skin. We could hear it through the chanting and the temple bells, the early morning rituals and the evening puja. We could smell it in the smoke and in the incense.

We’d been warned about the intensity of the touters here, but that wasn’t actually the biggest challenge for us during our stay here. Varanasi is shockingly filthy; the lane ways are so polluted and covered in waste – we could not take a single step without trying to dodge something nasty, and the smells were often so overwhelming I frequently had to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf. The filth, pollution, rubbish and faeces was something quite difficult to overlook, however, my immense fascination and surprising love for this extraordinary city was thankfully ,much greater than my disgust.

We arrived into Varanasi very early; walking out of the station into a cloud of smoke, hopping into a tuk tuk and then wizzing through the early morning city buzz, we arrived in front of a place that did not look like Mishra Guesthouse… because, it wasn’t. Very quickly we were introduced to Varanasi’s old city’s  sprawling maze of tiny laneways that dart and change and turn at every possible corner, and seemed to be brimming with shit, cows and rubbish.

Dodging and near-missing the never-ending mountains of cow, dog and no doubt human poo, whist struggling to breathe in the scent of human excrement infused with smoke, we followed our driver around corners and through lanes and arch ways, squishing past enormous cows, stray dogs, small shrines and images of Ganesh. At one point, two massive cows cornered me and I was forced to step back into a pile of shit in order to avoid being crushed between them both, which was a little bit scary considering the size of their bodies and horns.

Welcome to Varanasi.

I was so excited to be here.

We arrived at our guest house, dumped our bags and immediately headed to the roof top – Varanasi and the river Ganges was a view I was desperate to see, and one that’s now imprinted in my mind forever. The smokey haze covering the massive sprawl of buildings that curve around the Ganges and ghats was spectacular in its own right; like nothing I had ever seen before. Below me, tiny boats were waiting to set out on the river and monkeys pranced between temple roofs. I could hear the city swinging into action – the ding of cyclists and the horns of motorbikes, people talking and yelling and the sound of temple bells ringing out.
We were staying very close to Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, and the stream of smoke billowing up from the cremation sites was constantly smouldering; a sight we got strangely used to during our short stay. It was a lot to take in on our first view, but over the next few days we spent a lot of time up on that roof top pondering the scene.

The mother Ganges was a sight to be seen – a massive body of water peeping out of the morning haze and smoke, people living and breathing around her pulsing heart. People were washing and bathing, performing religious rituals that are too complex for me to understand,  rinsing away their sins and empowering themselves as they immersed their bodies in her waters.
The mother Ganges river is sacred to Hindus, often I’ve heard it is considered the “lifeline” for the millions of people who live and depend on her for their daily needs. She washes more than 60,000 bodies every day, and to bathe in her waters is considered an honour and a privilege.
Furthermore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges guarantees the deceased a life in heaven, and is a devout Hindu’s greatest wish. Those cremated here are released from the cycle of life, death and re-birth – in other words, those who die here better be done with living, as this is the final stop before heaven. The burning ghats smoulder and burn 24 hours a day.
We are told there are many hospices here in Varanasi – people come from all over India to live out their last years, months, weeks and days here in order to die here and be cremated; their bones and ashes then thrown into the river.
It is a great honour to be cremated here, but there are certain people who can not be burned, and instead are thrown straight into the Ganges. We were told that children under a certain age (we were told a few different ages, between 2 and 10 years old – I’m not sure what is correct), pregnant women, holy men, monks, suicide victims, cobra bite victims and those with leporacy can not be burned, and instead are thrown into the river, and either sink to the bottom, tied to a rock, or break free and float as they decompose naturally.

Whilst Hindus consider the river Ganges to be pure, and purifying, it is apparently one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In Varanasi alone, we were told that around 200 – 250 million litres of raw, untreated sewerage flows into the Ganges every day, which is a pretty shocking statistic and one I can not comprehend. With this in mind, I decided against taking a holy dip.

Our days in Varanasi became a bit of a blur – we spent most of our time walking through the old city’s maze of lanes and narrow alleys, dodging cows, motorbikes, rubbish and poo. The old city was a never ending exploration; we continually got lost and stumbled upon something new, fascinating, surprising, shocking or delicious.
The laneways are literally pulsating with religion and spirituality – temples and shrines can be found at every turn, images and statues of the various gods and prints of Ganesh mark almost every doorway of every ancient home. The people of Varanasi are so deeply religious, I found it incredible and fascinating to see them and watch their dedication and devotion. They dress in religious clothing, many people with markings on their foreheads or freshly shaven heads – one tuft on the back-top of their head remaining. The practices seemed so varied, the clothing, the rituals, the markings… We wandered about the city trying to take everything in, understanding so little of what was surrounding us; the complex rituals and practices are difficult to comprehend, and there appears to be so much happening in the one place that it was hard to grasp. The religion surrounding me felt so huge – something so unbelievably large – that I occasionally felt overwhelmed by it all. I wanted to know everything, why people were doing what they were doing, why they were dressed in such a way, what they were making, offering, saying… I wanted to know the meanings and traditions and beliefs behind the practices; I wanted to understand, rather than just walk past. By the end of our three days here, I was left with so many questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.
Within this mix of religion, life and death intertwined; Varanasi is both full of life and full of death. People are everywhere – as are cows – and so are the dead. The first time I saw a body being carried through the streets, the last time, and every time in between shocked me to my core and I could not comprehend what I was seeing before my eyes. We were confronted by death several times on a daily basis during our stay in Varanasi, and it was something I never quite felt comfortable facing.

When we weren’t wandering through the old city, or through the main chowk area, we were usually at the Blue Lassi shop – an institution in Old City that every tourist will know and probably have fond memories of. It was a fantastic place to meet people from every part of the world; we spent many hours over our three days chatting and listening and meeting new people, including one obnoxious Australian man who enjoyed beginning debates with every one he came into contact with, then attacking them, insulting their country, and backing them into a corner until he “won” the argument by force. He appeared to enjoy interrupting everyone, talking over the top of people and squashing everyone else’s opinions. Although he didn’t vote in Australia’s recent election – due to the fact he was on holiday – he took great pleasure and went to great lengths to insult Jake and myself for not voting, and enjoyed pointing that out to all those around us. He had a strong view about travel blogs and anyone who is “stupid” (his words) enough to waste time blogging or reading them, so it’s safe to say he wont be reading this.
Blue Lassi became our second home – we usually had breakfast and dinner here, and sometimes, some incredible street food in between. This tiny hole in the wall shop served up fruit filled lassis and a view of the lane way that was always crammed with the living and the dead. We often occupied the front two seats in the window sill of the shop, watching the pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists try to negotiate the spaces between each other, along with the cows, dogs, children, men using the wall as a urinal, chai wallas and food sellers, non-spatially aware tourists and piles of shit. Furthermore, we listened to grieving men as they chanted “Rama nama satya hai” and watched as they passed, waving incense and carrying the bodies of their family members through the streets. Seeing the men carrying the bamboo stretchers, the bodies of their loved ones covered in flowers and gold, red, orange, pink and white cloths, was something I never was quite able to comprehend. It felt so shocking and confronting and at the same time, so final and complete. For me to understand that in just a short while, these bodies would become nothing but ash and be released, in a literal and spiritual sense, into the holy Ganges, is very difficult. Death is not something I am used to being exposed to, but here in Varanasi it was a constant.
More than once during our stay, as we wandered through the lanes, we became caught up in a “traffic jam” of crowds of people and motorbikes, and stuck between a funeral procession. It is difficult to explain, but being unable to move away from the dead body that was held just centimeters from us was, for both Jacob and myself, quite a confronting and disconcerting experience.

We spent a lot of our time here walking the streets and exploring the sights. We were staying very close to the burning ghats, and just once took the opportunity to go and see the cremations taking place. We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole experience, and if we felt ‘right’ going to view the cremations, but we were curious and fascinated by the religious and spiritual practices that make Varanasi so famous world-wide.

By the burning ghats, there are several areas where wood is stored and sold. Massive scales weigh the wood, and there are different types of wood at different costs. There is a “fine art” to using the right amount of wood to completely consume and burn a body (it takes around 300kgs of wood – sandalwood being the preference, and the most expensive), and it was fascinating to see the wood being carried and sold and weighed on the scales. If you can imagine how much wood is needed for just one body, and the number of bodies burned daily here in Varanasi, it’s understandable but hard to comprehend that wood is bought in from up to 1000kms away.

There appeared to be two main sights where cremations were taking place at Manikarnika Ghat – up some stairs to a higher mezzanine level, and on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that up to 200 bodies are burned at this ghat each day.
We climbed some steps, very unsure of where was acceptable and allowed, cautious of touters and scammers, and trying to remain respectful. We stood for a few minutes above the cremation sites, the smoke burning our eyes, watching the burning taking place on the banks of the Ganges, and what I saw will remain with me forever.

Whilst it’s impossible to explain what I felt there as I watched, I understood what was happening to be deeply spiritual; that these bodies and souls were now at peace and on their way to heaven.

The cremation process is a complex one – steeped in religious rituals and beliefs – and one I became fascinated by. Wood is bought by family and friends for the deceased to be cremated upon. How wealthy the purchaser is determines what kind of wood, and how much of it, can be bought. The poorer people may not be able to afford enough wood to completely reduce a body to ash, which results in remaining body parts being thrown into the river. Those who can afford more, can choose where their loved ones are cremated along with other important religious considerations. It costs between around $10 – 70 to burn a body, as we were told.
Bodies of the deceased are wrapped in a simple cloth, then covered in coloured cloths with individual meanings. Before a body is placed onto the wood to be burned, the coloured cloth is removed and the body dipped into the Ganges then smothered with ghee.
It takes around 3 – 4 hours for a body to completely reduce to ash, and male family members and friends observe the process whilst Doms – members of the “untouchable” cast – stoke the fire to keep it burning. If the skull explodes during the burning process, it is considered lucky, as the soul can escape to heaven. If not, the skull is cracked by a family member – usually the eldest son. Quite often, a hip or chest bone remains, and together with the ash, they are thrown into the Ganges when the cremation is complete.
No women are allowed to attend the cremation ceremonies; only male family members watch the bodies turn to ash. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning for this is as we were told two different stories: firstly, that no crying is allowed at the cremation sites as it will damage the soul on it’s way to heaven, and secondly, that many years ago, the female family members of the deceased – particularly the wives – would occasionally be overcome with grief and throw themselves onto the fire. To stop this, women were banned.

Besides the five or six cremation sites (it was difficult to tell as the cremations were at very different stages of burning) bodies still on the bamboo stretchers were left on piles of rubbish and cloth and dirt, waiting to be burned. Cloth piles were everywhere, and the monsoon rains had left mounds of sediment and filth along the entire ghats. Amongst this mess, I watched as cows chewed slowly on wilting flower garlands and men with giant metal bows sifted through the mud, river water and human ash, searching for gold and jewellery once worn by the deceased.

We didn’t stand there for too long, a few minutes was enough, and we climbed down the steps and through the masses of people and piles of wood, back away from the ghats.

One evening, we attempted to take an evening boat ride on the Ganges – without a torch and due to the mighty monsoon, the ghats were flooded and we walked through filth, mud and water (which I can only assume came from the Ganges and was posing a serious threat to my health). At the ghats, hundreds of people were bathing, brushing their teeth, washing their clothing or simply standing or sitting around observing. Our boatman walked us to where our boat was meant to be, then left and didn’t bother to return – after ten or so minutes standing on the banks of the Ganges in the dark, whilst men stared and I fretted for my health, we left. Squelching back to our room, we headed straight for the bathroom tap where we washed the holy filth from our feet and let the water and soap absorb into our skin for the next half hour or so. I prayed we’d make it through.

The next morning we woke early and made a second attempt to take a boat ride on the Ganges. This time there was light; enough to see where we were stepping and make a decent attempt to keep our feet Ganges-free. There was eight of us in total on the boat, and the poor boatman struggled to paddle whilst our guide explained much of what I now know about the Ganges and Hindu cremation rituals. As we watched the sun rise over the river and the pilgrims performing their morning rituals, the cremations came into full view and once again, I felt confronted by my surroundings. This was such a different world to what I knew.

Our guide answered happily whatever questions were thrown at him, but it was most shocking when one of the Spanish tourists asked whether or not was true that people actually drink the Ganges water.
Cupping his hands, he leaned over the side of the boat, collected some water and poured it down his throat. Meanwhile, I almost vomited into the body of water he’d just drunk from. The same body of water that collects hundreds of millions of litres of sewerage every day, where the bodies of deceased people and animals decompose, where waste from countless sources and ash from thousands of bodies is dumped, and where water-borne diseases are rampant. He drank from one of the worlds most polluted and highly infectious rivers, yet, somehow, he was still alive. He explained, revealing his tiny biceps, that “I believe this is my mother Ganga. If I believe I drink her, she make me strong. If I believe I drink water, I sick.”
Still reeling with shock, I told him that “regardless of what I believe, if I drink, I die.”
We continued the rest of our boat ride, which was really a highlight of our stay in Varanasi, and I continued to fear the possible sight of a floating body.

On our final day in Varanasi I woke with a cold, feeling pretty rotten. We took a walking tour with a guide from our hotel which was 100 rupees very well spent. He took us to some very magnificent religious sites – temples, ashrams, shrines and mosques – and explained in detail about various religious practices, gods, beliefs, and the buildings themselves. He toured us through lanes and alleys we’d not yet discovered during our stay, and we saw a very different side of the old city that was fascinating.

We departed Varanasi on the evening of the 15th at 7:40pm – for once a reasonable train departure time! It meant a final dinner at Blue Lassi after our walking tour, where a shockingly high number of bodies (for me – not for the shop owner who said that’s very normal) were carried past our window sill.

At around 5:30pm we collected our luggage and headed for the train station. Walking through the narrow lane ways with our packs bulging, it was difficult to manoeuvre ourselves amongst the cows, motorbikes, pedestrians, rubbish and excrement, and even a funeral procession. We made it to the ‘top’ of the old city where the chowk began, and were instantly pounced on by several keen auto drivers who screamed and shouted until Jacob got them in order. It was hilarious to watch him holding an “auction” of sorts, attempting to find the lowest offer to take us to the station. The drivers were all so eager to get our sale, and one even resorted to holding his hand in the air like a school child in order to win us over. He did in the end, and we got into his tuk tuk and said goodbye to Varanasi, but not before a police officer stopped him for whatever reason and we were left sitting alone whilst a thousand people stared and the policeman looked very angry.

Eventually we made it to the station; we ate some naan at a very dodgy looking local place and then boarded our train – our very last overnight train in India. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved in some ways; whilst I love the Indian Railways, climbing up to my top berth bunk is becoming too familiar and worrying about my safety and my belongings all night is getting tiresome.

As we sat on our seats, an Israeli girl joined us, and I was grateful for one more tourist – and a female! – in our cabin.
Whilst we sat, waiting for our train to move, a small child shoved his hands through the open window with a metal dish and spent a very long time clanging it against the metal window frame asking us for money. I felt very distressed by this situation, and again, was grateful this was the last train journey for now. We were soon joined by five more men in our 8 bed cabin, who proceeded to stare at both me and the Israeli girl for the duration of our trip – what would turn out to be a whole 16 hours. Beside our 8 sleeper cabin, still in our view, two more boys proceeded to stare and photograph both us girls on their phones, until Jacob gave them such a nasty glare they put away their phones… at least until the Israeli girl climbed up to her bunk, at which point they both took their phones back out and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of her bottom.
At that point, I was so relieved that this was our last train trip, and I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

As the train began to move from the platform, much later than 7:40pm, people began to lock up their belongings with chains and sellers moved amongst the carriages selling drinks and newspapers. We bought a drink and a paper – the drink smelled like poison and we didn’t drink it, and the boy next to me spent a good hour leaning way too close to me, pretending to read my news paper whilst I kept nudging him away from me. Now I was feeling more than uncomfortable.
I quickly moved over to Jake’s side of the berth as soon as the fat man in our carriage (who had the world’s most disgusting and terrifying feet!) got up to use the bathroom. I’ve learned by now that on Indian trains it’s every man for himself, so I stole his seat and hid next to Jacob, wishing we could get off. Sitting there was safer in some aspects, but also put me in full view of every man in our carriage, and I spent a good hour or so being stared at by at least six pairs of eyes. I was now hating this train ride, and wanted to get off.

Feeling horrible, I was momentarily relieved for the police presence that walked through our carriage. “Oh good” I thought. Then I saw their massive guns, and wondered why they were walking towards Jacob, the Israeli girl and myself. Each one of us was handed a piece of paper, a pen and a form, something I’d never experienced before on the Indian Railways – I wondered what was going on. The police stood over us, and I proceeded to read the piece of paper, which informed me in poorly worded English that basically, this specific train journey (Varanasi – Delhi) is renowned for intentional druggings and theft of tourists, and that it is in my best interests to decline any food and drink offered to me, as well as to lock up my belongings very securely. We then had to sign a waiver form saying we read and understood the form, which felt a little bit like I was signing my life away. By this point, I was terrified. Whilst I sat their quietly shitting myself, the fat man with foul feet put down his bed, and then lay down opposite me with one eye open, staring at me. The next five or so minutes went something like this… “Jacob, he’s sleeping with one eye open, staring at me… Jacob. He’s still staring. Okay, I’m getting scared, he’s still staring. Jake, he’s still staring, I hate this. Okay, I hate this, I really hate this. Oh fuck, they’re all staring…! Okay, that guy just took a photo of me! Jake! Jake! Jake – seriously – are you sleeping!? How!?…”

Eventually, I climbed up to my bunk (with Jake standing directly behind me so no one could photograph my ass) and lay there fretting. Below me, I could still see staring eyes, and I knew it was going to be a really, really long train ride. Any relief I had felt about this being my last train ride had been replaced with fear, and the wish that this ride would simply be over.

Varanasi was well and truly behind me now, and Delhi was just a few – very long – hours away.

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bed Bug and Papping India: 15 – 16.08.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Hello! Where from?”

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

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

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

Cute from a distance

Cute from a distance

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

The final climb to the top

The final climb to the top

It's good to be the king!

It’s good to be the king!

….

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

Traveling in comfort and style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feast!

Feast!

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

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

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

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

It was simply incredible.

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

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

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

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

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

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

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

Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Spectacular Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

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

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

Snippets of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Our time in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, has been a brief but wonderful two days. We spent time exploring the ancient city on bike and by foot, and took in the spectacular sites of the enormous dagobas, temples, spiritual sites and ancient ruins.

Our slick wheels

Our slick wheels

Riding our bikes in the sweltering heat, we rode through the city centre – past people and animals, cars, buses, trucks and tractors. People were constantly smiling, waving and yelling “hello” as we passed them. The ride was often really peaceful: around rice fields and lotus ponds, through empty stretches of road and path, and past remnants of ancient monasterys and palaces. At other times, you could feel the breeze of the passing bus or truck as it honked and whizzed past, only centimeters away from our bikes.

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

We bought a ticket that allowed us entry into the historic areas, and spent time riding between each site on our maps.

Lankarama

Lankarama, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st Century BC

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st or 2nd Century centerpiece of monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery – a ruined 9th Century school for monks

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery – 8th Century guard stones

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Thuparama Dagoba - constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

Thuparama Dagoba – constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

The Royal Palace, Citadel - 12th Century

The Royal Palace, Citadel – 12th Century

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba – 3rd Century

Cycling through the 'Buddhist Railing'

Cycling through the ‘Buddhist Railing’

Vessagiriya - Remains of cave monastery complex  (4th and 5th Century)

Vessagiriya – Remains of cave monastery complex (4th and 5th Century)

Isurumumiya Vihara - Rock Temple

Isurumumiya Vihara – Rock Temple

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Sri Maha Bodhi - the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Sri Maha Bodhi – the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba - (140 BC)

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba – (140 BC)

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?