Bamboo Fishermen, Neck Rings, Floating Farms and Cat Monestry Myanmar: 8.11.2013

It was an early morning start; we woke at 5:30am, wolfed down the usual terrible guest house breakfast and headed out into the cold morning air. We met Matt at the bridge overlooking the boats on the canal before 6am; it was already light outside although the sun had not yet risen over the mountains. We needed to find a boatman and agree on a route and destination before the sun rose any higher, otherwise we’d miss sun rise completely.

We found a boatman with ease and agreed on 25,000 kyats for a full day going right down south of the lake; this area was supposedly much more picturesque and less touristic than the “standard route/area” of Inle Lake. Once we’d done our very easy and hassle-free/scam-free negotiations, the boatman teenager arrived and proceeded to unfold chairs, lay cushions down on the seats and then provided us each with a blanket, life jacket and parasole. Luxury...

With the motor of the tiny boat roaring and our boat-teenager ready, we were off for our full day on the water, and what an absolutely incredible and memorable day it turned out to be…

As we gained speed and pushed through the water the morning air was indeed so cold we had to use those woolen blankets I’d previously laughed off. Sitting there on our little cushioned seats with blankies on our laps, I had to smile to myself. At least I wasn’t decked out in an oversized life jacket…
The boat continued out onto the lake and we were indeed able to watch as the sun rose over the mountains that seemed to form a wall on both sides of the lake. It was pretty spectacular to see and reminded me once again how lucky we are to be here. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Soon after we had left the canals the lake began to open up to reveal the massive body of water that is Inle Lake; we were struck by the natural beauty surrounding us and entertained by the several Bamboo Net Fishermen in their boats who appeared to be posing for photos quite willingly. The caught their feet into the edge of their nets and stuck out their legs; balancing on one leg with their conical nets jutting out looked rather comical and a little unnatural, but I guess made for a good photo. The push for money after they had finished posing was hardly there, if at all, and made me wonder what this area of Myanmar will become in the near future…
We did notice these fishermen had pristine “uniforms” on rather than the odd worn lungis and scrappy t-shirts, no fish in their boats and no equipment besides their one conical bamboo net…

The more authentic looking fishermen were just as impressive though – if not more – as they paddled the lake using their legs and feet rather than their hands. With their foot, ankle and lower legs wrapping around the paddle, they balanced perfectly on the other foot and went about using their hands for fishing. Their balance alone was something to marvel at and their perfect paddle strokes even more so.

I loved watching the fishermen paddling, fishing with their nets and working on the lake; it was more impressive for me than the pristine posing fishermen and when our boat-teen turned off the motor and let us float silently for a moment amongst the fishermen I felt truly calm. Another reminder of how amazing this whole experience is.

Our first destination for the day was the Floating Markets. Whilst it sounds touristic and flashbacks of the nightmare that is the Bangkok Floating Market came to mind, it turned out to be brilliant and we were so lucky that the market happened to be active the day we chose to explore Inle (the markets in this area are on a weekly rotating roster-type system).

The floating markets were pretty spectacular for a number of reasons, but what made it even better was the fact that we’d started our day so early; the local section of the market was in FULL swing whilst the tourist stalls (selling the same generic crap that no one would want at ridiculously overpriced rates) were all just starting to set up and had not really opened yet.
For this reason, our first destination for the day turned out to be the highlight.

Instead of being hassled to buy creepy wooden masks, beads, fake silver, wooden cats, miscellaneous objects, random things and bits and pieces of wood, bamboo and bone that Australian customs would no doubt have a fit over, we were able to wander around the more local area and take in the sights, colours, sounds, smells, tastes and the people.
People were everywhere: eating, cooking, buying, selling, socialising. Women from different tribal villages wore stunning clothing, head pieces, scarves, wraps and we saw several of the Long Neck-Ringed women shopping and socialising with the other women.
There were so many stalls cooking and selling food and the sounds and smells were beautiful. I bought a local tofu salad from a little man sitting on a tiny plastic chair, cutting up tofu and cabbage with big pair of hand-made kitchen scissors; the salad turned out to be one of the most memorable meals I had in Myanmar.The produce looked so fresh and colourful, the tomatoes so red, the carrots so orange, the herbs so green. It was truly an overload of colour, contrasted against the colourful head scarves and tribal clothing. It was actually a pretty special event to witness and be immersed in.

The scenery on the lake was so beautiful and it wasn’t long before the cold air changed to warm and then hot. It was warm on our skin and as we floated through the lake I fell asleep briefly in the sunshine.
I woke minutes later to see our boat moving through tiny canals and little “laneways” amongst the high grasses and foliage. Tiny lilly pads and bright pink lotus flowers burst out from the water’s blue surface.

Beautiful.

We rode through floating villages where bamboo and wooden houses stood on stilts above the water and it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of how life on the water might be like for these Burmese people.

We stopped at a Lotus Weaving factory; women weaving using thread made from the fibers of lotus flower stalks made intricate and beautiful items. We were shown how lotus flower stalks are broken and the sticky fibers stretched to create a thin thread. A painstaking and laborious process: in one day a woman can make 15 – 20 metres of lotus thread. Whilst we didn’t even consider purchasing anything from the in-factory shop (where prices fetched more than $300 USD for some items and were absolutely not in our budget), I found it really impressive to watch the craft and making processes; it’s hard for me to comprehend how these women learn and memorise these ancient weaving patters and operate such complex looking looms.
Back on the river, I noticed many of the houses on the lake had a loom and often, a woman working at it.

Our next stop was at a large pagoda area that is also another market location. We missed that market today as the floating market was happening instead, but we’d already been lucky enough to visit one market so no dissapointment. We were given a whole hour here to explore (I think purely so our boat-teen could have a nap in the sunshine) and ended up marvelling at the pagodas and then sitting for the rest of the hour in the tea house drinking packet-mix Burmese tea. It’s interesting to have another traveler with us; Matt had some fantastic stories to share about his travels abroad and it’s nice to meet someone who’s as passionate about Asia as we are.

Throughout the day we traveled by boat through so many little – and not so little – floating villages and I really never got tired of looking at the houses on stilts.

A floating Village called ‘Namba Village’ was especially interesting and gave us a glimpse of life on the river. Our boat-teen turned off the motor and we were able to witness a large group of male “carpenters” (what looked more like a group of local men working together) building a new home. Large bamboo frames were being installed into the lake, stilts and frames jutted out of the water and boats were being used to cart bamboo poles around the water. It was so impressive and it was so lovely when they all made the time to stop, wave, smile and say hello to us.
It was truly a joy to see the life on the lake and felt very authentic; it was non-touristic and we were often the only tourists around.

Some looked to weathered and worn and were standing on complete slants or angles, threatening to fall over at any moment. Others looked newer and stood proudly over the water. Clothing hung from under the house or through open windows. There was no glass on windows or no closed doors; the houses were open to the elements and exposed the insides of rooms.
Cats slept on windowsills in the sunshine, elderly people and children peered from windows and so many homes had looms out in the open.
It was nice to imagine what village life on the lake must be like. Taking a boat to pop down to the local store, cafe, tea house, work… it’s a lifestyle I can’t imagine.

Lots of hotels, cafes, restaurants and resort-style accommodation could be seen throughout the lake – even beauty salons complete with photos of Justin Beiber and shops selling packet-mix Burmese tea.

We stopped off at another area where boats were being built in the mud at the waters edge by barefooted craftsmen. Boats take two months to make and cost around $2000 USD.

Another stop off at a local cigar making factory where several women sit each day crafting cigars by hand with a mix of tobacco, honey, tamarind and banana, rolled up in dried leaves.
The women spent their entire time smiling at us all as they went about their work.
They worked with such speed, getting paid for each cigar they complete, rather than by the hour. It was interesting to see as we’ve seen these cigars all over Myanmar and in the mouths of many Burmese people. Apparently they’re pretty tasty.

I liked that there was no hard sell at any of the places we went; we were fine to just visit, observe and learn rather than be forced to part with money. I did wonder if these factories were purely set up for tourism or if they existed prior to the influx of visitors.

There were countless silversmith factories located throughout several of the villages we passed through but we never stopped at a workshop. We weren’t so interested in seeing those sorts of factories and were more interested in seeing life on the lake.

Our lunch stop was at a floating restaurant packed with tourists – no doubt every boatman had taken their tourists here. We ordered fish dishes and ate fresh fish (hopefully) straight from Inle Lake.

In the afternoon we headed first to a BIG pagoda where gold leaf was everywhere. It felt a bit like the Disney Land of pagodas with flashy entrances, tourist stalls, drink vendors, photography exhibitions, murals that stretched across the walls and ceilings, camera fees and gold as far as the eye could see.

There was no tourist entree fee and a sign warning tourists about purchasing gold leaf from street peddlers. We’ve seen a lot of signage like this in Myanmar to date; signs telling locals to “warmly welcome tourists” and “take care tourists.” I love Myanmar and its non-scammy ways.

We watched as men bought patches of gold leaf and stuck them to gold leaf covered buddhas on a podium in the centre of the pagoda. No women were allowed on the podium, nor allowed to place gold leaf anywhere sacred… It makes me wonder…

We headed on towards the floating gardens that cover a decent portion of Inle Lake. Various vegetables are grown on floating gardens and held in place with bamboo poles. The gardens seemed to stretch for kilometers with lane ways and canals dividing them so that boats can move through.
Having a boat-teenager at this point was awesome because he found a decent patch of garden, stopped the boat and let us jump out onto the floating garden. At first, when he skipped out of the boat and along the floating walk way, the three of us were a bit shocked… and then, when he invited us up, there was no hesitation.

Yes, it’s silly but true: wobbling, jumping about and flouncing around on the floating garden was a real highlight and has become a stand-out memory of our time in not only Inle Lake, but also Myanmar.
The water was soaking up through the mulch past our shins and our movements made each other wobble off balance, just as much as our laughter. It was all a bit surreal; here we are in Myanmar, frollicking about on a patch of garden that is only inches thick, floating above the massive Inle Lake. Loved it.
Loved it even more when a group of life-jacket clad tourists rode past in their boat with looks of horror/envy. Their boatman wasn’t as fun as ours.

Back off land and in the boat, school was out and that meant countless little boats began emerging with uniform-clad children. Parents paddling, children paddling – I even saw a small child paddling with his foot! We saw so many children throughout the day mastering skills like paddling, rowing and fishing; I was truly amazed and impressed. At one point I saw a toddler – yes, a toddler – rowing a boat.

Our final stop for the day was at a famous floating monastery, well known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. Unfortunately, there were no jumping cats (any more) but there were a lot of lazy looking cats hanging about. Apparently one of the monks here taught some of the cats to jump through hoops and… well, there are a few different stories so I’m not exactly sure what the deal is, but supposedly the monk – or the cats – got sick of the hoops and the jumping and performing…or…apparently the monk died. Who knows.
Regardless, the monastery was impressive and packed with locals. There was a large group of women sitting in a circle peeling and crushing handfulls of garlic with pestles. The sound of the pestles thudding against the garlic and mortar was rhythmic and in time whilst the women socialised and took more garlic cloves from the central dish.
It was a pretty touristic place and appeared to have been extended massively to incorporate tourist shops and vendor stalls, food and drink carts, a silversmith shop and some other sales focused stalls. There were a lot of tourists being bought here and whilst it was interesting, not exactly my favourite stop of the day.
Back in the boat late afternoon, we began the journey back to Nyaung Shwe. We asked our boat-teen to go back slowly so we could see more fishermen on the lake and enjoy the sunset. All three of us had really loved just observing the working fishermen on the lake and the stunning scenery and vast body of water was so beautiful (and created brilliant photo opportunities).

It was all so stunning and beautiful I don’t think any of us had really wanted the day to end. It had been such a brilliant way to spend the day and our time here in Myanmar. As the sun began to set behind us, I was so grateful to have had today – it will remain as one of the more memorable days to date.

Back at the boat docks we ended our day on the lake. Our boat teen smiled and helped us off the boat; there was no touting, no asking for more money or tips, no awkward “requests” (aka demands) that we’ve so often had to deal with in these sorts of situations. I really appreciated that and it’s something that continues to stand out for my in Myanmar. I truly hope it stays like this.

Matt, Jake and I headed to a local joint for a few beers in the evening and then dinner at a Burmese restaurant. It was the first time in Myanmar we’d had beer and we made sure to try the local specialty, Myanmar Beer… it was late before we moved on for dinner and ate more local style foods, curries, shan noodles and fermented tea leaf salads.

By 9:30pm we all called it a night – we were all exhausted after what felt like a massive but incredible day. It was so awesome, I actually can’t even begin to describe how it felt. All I can say is amazing, amazing, amazing.

A true highlight of Myanmar, and our Asian Adventure.

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A Palace of Sorts Myanmar: 4.11.2013

Today was literally spent chit chatting with various people; we hadn’t planned it to be that way but that’s what was probably so great about it. I’m sick of planning; it’s so much better when things just happen and fall into place – and they usually do.

Agreeing we’ll do the one day hike and depart tomorrow, we decided we wanted to see lots of Hsipaw town today; first things first, however, we needed a decent coffee from Pontoon Coffee – a little cafe owned by a chatty Aussie lady, Maureen, who serves up the best coffee we’ve had in Asia so far. She was out when we showed up this morning so we enjoyed our coffee and decided to stop by later. Heading back into town, we visited the market and just strolled through the streets looking at everything going on around us.

We ended up back at our new local, Mr. Shake, for lunch where we enjoyed delicious fruit salads and good conversation with a fellow traveller from Belgium. She’d just returned from a two day hike and agreed the one day trek into the villages was probably enough to get a ‘feel’ for the area.

We’d been really interested in visiting the old Shan Palace here in Hsipaw; the home and ‘palace’ of the last Shan Price. The nephew of the last Shan Prince, Donald and his wife Fern, now reside there and welcome tourists at any time of the day to come and see the palace home and hear the story. Between 2002 and 2009 it was off limits and closed to tourists when Donald was arrested and jailed apparently for interacting with foreigners. Donald was eventually released from prison and again their fascinating story is being told to anyone who wants to know more about it.

Walking out to the Palace, we passed by Pontoon Coffee and thought we’d just stop by again and see if Maureen was around. We were interested in having a chat with her and she was happy to sit out in the sunshine with us for what turned into more than a few hours!

Late afternoon we finally continued on our way up to the Shan Palace – the walk there was short but beautiful and little children and monks pointed us in the right direction as we walked along the dirt track and through the greenery and villages. This place is beautiful.

When we arrived at the Shan Palace the entrance gate was closed; seeing as we’d only read online that it was open to tourists now (the guidebook says it’s completely off limits!) I wasn’t sure if we should just open it and walk on down the path. However, Fern must’ve realised we were there and walked down the path to greet us so warmly. She gave us a brief introduction and welcomed us to walk around the grounds for a while; a few other tourists joined us and soon there was a large group. We were welcomed into the front room of the palace (which is really more like a large, historic Brittish home, rather than a palace) and we were given a wonderful introduction into her family history and their story.
The palace is home to a fascinating history as well as generations of royalty. The story is amazing, shocking, saddening and interesting. We sat for a while and talked, Fern answered any questions and we gave a small donation at the end of our visit. It was an absolutely worth while trip out to the palace and a memorable afternoon.

Leaving the palace, we were planning on heading to Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden – a large, beautiful and chilled-out garden owned by an elderly lady who apparently makes beautiful organic foods and drinks – but I was feeling a little off, so we decided to just go back to the guest house. By the time we’d walked the 20 minutes back into town I was feeling worse, and unfortunately the rest of my evening was spent vomiting into a bin and watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Classy…

Yes, finally, more than four months and 6 countries into our travels, I had been struck down.

We asked if we could move to another room with a private bathroom and thankfully they had a comfortable double room with a bathroom right next door to our current room – Jake was able to just move all our belongings (which we’d naturally spread all over the room) next door whilst I lay on the bed feeling sorry for myself.
We’d been planning on booking our trek for tomorrow, but I guess that won’t be happening now which is really disappointing; tomorrow was our last opportunity really to take the day trek as we’re leaving the following day.

On the bright side, I guess, if I have to get sick anywhere, Hsipaw is a lovely place to slow down in for a few days…

Desert India: 01.09.2013

We arrived early morning and before we could even step off the train, the man in the bunk underneath me woke up and said “you want rickshaw?”Yep – still on the stationary train at 6am, I was barely awake – hair sticking out like a cactus from my head – and we were already being touted…
We stepped off the train onto a platform that was more like an ocean of rickshaw touters and taxi drivers. They just didn’t seem to understand “no.” Luckily, we are couch surfing here in Jaisalmer, and a young boy holding a sign with our names on it was our saving grace.

Sitting in the back of an open jeep in the cool morning air, outside was still too dark for us to see much. Our host here owns a beautiful hotel with an amazing rooftop view of the Jaisalmer Fort, which looks more like an enormous sandcastle. Spectactular.
We sat on the rooftop sipping chai as the sun came up and the fort and streets below us came into view.
The streets are dusty here and cows and goats wander casually, people are busy already in the early hours of the morning – pulling chai, boiling oil for samosas and other deep fried street snacks, driving rickshaws, pulling carts, opening stores and setting up for a new day. I love this time of the day in India – I’ve decided I’m not awake often enough at this time of the day to enjoy it (sleep becomes the priority most of the time) – early train arrivals usually are the reason for me not being asleep, and it’s usually so worth it.
India is always so alive and buzzing, it’s rarely quiet – often even late into the nights – so the quieter times of early mornings are peaceful and beautiful.

We spent our day exploring the town; Jaisalmer has the only still inhabited fort in Rajisthan, so I’ve read, and walking through the winding lane way up into the main area was full of people selling and buying, touting and driving about on motorbikes and in rickshaws. Textiles and patchworks, camel leather, tourist pants and ‘fake’ (photocopied) books seem to be the items of choice for sale, and many touristy restaurants, but there are also houses and people living our their daily lives and some less intrusive businesses. The buildings, architecture and structures  inside the fort are magnificent, and we spent our time marvelling at them whilst managing to avoid the many offers from  touters, which went something like this…
“Hello madame, you want to come my shop? Looking only free.”  – No thanks.
“Are you sure I can not help to you to spend your money?”  –
Very sure.
“Please, give to me just one chance to rip you off.”  –
Goodbye.
…and strolling about drinking bottle after bottle of water in what was a feeble attempt to stay even slightly hydrated in the heat.

We ended up booking ourselves a Camel Safari, starting the following day at 8am, with an overnight stay in the Thar Desert and arrival back the following evening around 6pm. Yep, that’s about 12 hours on a camel’s back in total. Excellent. With a safari booked, we headed to a little tourist shop where a man had earlier made a lengthy attempt to lure us in for free looking. He was so persistent, we decided he deserved our hundred rupees. The scarf was quite nice.

Our evening was spent with our generous host and two other couch surfers, where together we shared good food, good conversation, Indian beer and good company. We had a delicious home cooked mutton curry with chapatti, prepared on the ground and cooked on an open fire in the back yard. Amazing, and a lot of fun… a great way to end our first evening in Jaisalmer.

Tomorrow it’s off to the Thar Desert – Desert Girl and Camel Man are ready… or are we?

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.

A taste of Sri Lankan Kandy

The bus ride from Polonnaruwa to Kandy was spent packed in with a hundred-odd people who loved to stare at us, one chicken, no air conditioning and an overly horn-happy driver with a serious need for speed. Hurtling around narrow bends and built up areas, dodging people, animals and a ton of other road vehicles, we laughed nervously until we rolled into Kandy. We’d arrived in the cultural capital.

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The skies are a little more mysterious here – as if they couldn’t decide whether or not to rain – and the weather is cooler here; it’s a lovely change.

The scenery over the central lake and up above the hills is spectacular and green: tiny houses and buildings jut out and mist covers the distant mountains. This place is stunning.

A good looking view

A good looking view

The busy city centre is a sight worth seeing: women dress in brightly coloured flowing saris, people stream everywhere, and the central area is jam packed full of people and buses and other road users – one enormous chaotic traffic flow.

The buses get so close to you – and other vehicles – that you fear they’re about to collide, and people are packed in like sardines where ever they seem to go – on or off the bus.
There seems to be a few official bus stations, but instead the buses just seem to move about everywhere with no order – it’s as if sometimes they’re stopping here, sometimes they’re stopping there, and at other times, they’re not running at all. Regardless, where ever you go, it’s more than likely you’ll be surrounded by a cloud of petrol fumes and listen to the constant honking of several loud horns.

Traffic police stream the traffic, bringing pedestrians to a halt so that drivers can move, and again, so that people can walk safely – although sneaky tuk tuks try to pass through.

The Green Light

The Green Light

Street vendors are selling their goods where ever seems to suit – a woman selling cleaning products and sponges stands in a park, a shoe fixer sets up station on the busy walk way, and the bubble seller blows bubbles at you as you walk along the side walk.

They'll give you good price, very cheap, local price.

They’ll give you good price, very cheap, local price.

In the fresh produce markets, it’s hard to focus – too many things to see are happening at once and there is such a wide array of colourful fresh products; it’s hard to resist buying them even though we’ve got no where to cook them! The vendors give a quick wink at us as we walk through, then continue weighing on antique-looking scales and shoving egg plants and snake beans into tiny bags.

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We did happen to stumble on a cheeky fish monger who kept posing for us, insisting we photograph him. Of course, how could we resist when he whipped out the bloodied tuna head?

Here's Mr. Fishmonger's 5 minutes of fame

Here’s Mr. Fishmonger’s 5 minutes of fame

Of course, Kandy is a real tourist area – it’s famous dot on the Sri Lankan map lures the tourists in – therefore, there are always going to be those praying upon those who are a little more naïve, and it became a bit of a hassle to keep the pestering at bay, unlike the other areas we’d seen in Sri Lanka.

The tourists seem to move in droves here – we’re like pack animals – all hiding behind each other with our Lonely Planet guide books and mosquito repellant. 5pm comes and we’re all rolling down our pant-legs and rubbing citronella and Deet into our skin. And if you’re looking for the tourists areas – look no further than the 5:30pm nightly cultural dance show, where Kandyan dancing and drumming displays are commercialized yet rather enjoyable!

There are cafes here! Places to just sit, drink and enjoy! There is also a reasonable choice of restaurants! – something we’ve been missing a little in the other places we visited.

Dahl and Roti

Dahl and Roti

As for culture, we pretty much managed to avoid it here – not particularly by choice – but, well, it was more difficult to find than I thought it would be in the “cultural capital.” Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that we decided not to visit the two “top recommendation for tourists” – the sacred Temple of the Tooth and the Botanic Gardens.

Instead, we spent our time simply wandering about – we explored the markets for hours, ate some good food, visited a tea factory, learned about various spices, cooked Sri Lankan food with our home-stay hosts, took a tuk tuk up a mountain to the famous tea museum which ended up being closed, and walked around the large, beautiful lake.

Little markets

Little markets

...Get in your cot!

…Get in your cot!

Yay! Tea!

Yay! Tea!

Home-cooked curry

Home-cooked curry

Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy was a lovely place to visit; it was good to just simply stroll and explore, but for now, we’re ready to move on and see something new and different. Tomorrow its off to Ella on the train – observation carriage all the way – to soak up the incredible scenery and tea plantations. I’m ready for another cuppa and some hill-country hikes, so let’s see what our next destination has to offer!