Sounds of Serenity Myanmar: 7.11.2013

After arriving early into Nyaung Shwe by bus, us tourists hopped into the back of the only waiting tuk tuk (more like a pick-up truck) and were carted off to our various guest houses – but not before being forced to pay a hefty Government enforced “entrance fee” to the Inle Lake area at a very non-official “booking office” (read: wooden shack with hand-made looking sign). We were not sure that this was legitimate and still aren’t; the entire time we were here in the town the ticket was never checked by anyone…

Arriving at our guest house, we found ourselves situated right on the riverbank that leads out to Inle Lake; it offered us a great view of all the boats and boatmen. In other words, the roaring sound of loud motors from the hundreds of passing  boats was incessant. The chugging, choking and putting of motors, coupled with the serious renovations happening in and around our guest house, made for one very noisy visit to Nyaung Shwe. But it didn’t matter in the slightest; we were here at last.

Whist Jake decided to have a nap, I headed straight up the dusty street to the large local morning market where I went in search and eventually found sticky rice, fried bean curd and a cabbage/garlic/chilli/coriander/unpressed bean curd/oil dressing. Sticky rice and tofu salad: it’s my new favourite here in Myanmar.

The local people seemed a little unsure about having a foreigner in the market buying the local foods, but Nyaung Shwe is a touristic place so I doubt I’m the first… It took a long time for me to actually purchase the foods; not because I couldn’t find what I wanted, or because there were long queues, but more so because it seemed pretty clear that the locals didn’t actually want to serve me and were more interested in staring at me blatantly, then ignoring me, serving anyone and everyone else who came by after me and then laughing with each other and gesturing their hands towards me.
When I did eventually stand up for myself and make sure my order was finally heard and acknowledged, I received even more odd looks, a lot more laughing and some pointing too.
Sigh.
I understand I look different and that I probably don’t order the right thing in the right way, that I speak a different language and that I’m a tourist, but…

Back at the room, Jake and I ate our market breakfast on our little pattio and soaked up the serenity around us, mostly in the form of sounds: banging hammers, electronic saws, construction workers shouting and the endless grating of boat motors.
Nyaung Shwe – I like you.

Trying to decide what to do today and feeling as though it was already “too late” to begin a full day boat trip out onto the late (we wanted to see the sun rise and it was already well after 9am) we thought about possibly taking a half-day boat trip out onto Inle Lake to see the sun set. However, we really did want a full-day and the opportunity to see the sun both rise and fall over the lake.

Still deliberating about today’s plans, we walked into town to explore the area and find a lassi shop. We coincidentally ran into Matt who also had plans to take a boat tour the following day, so we decided the three of us would hire a boat and  boatman for the full day tomorrow, starting at the beautiful hour of 6am. Too easy! We had the full day today to explore and enjoy… and, seeing as every tourist – and there were lots – had their ass parked on a bike seat, maybe hire some bikes.

We did a few mundane things in town for the morning that involved checking out prices for boats, different routes etc., checking prices for buses to Yangon, changing more US dollars for Burmese Kyats and doing a heap of washing back at our room. We converted our balcony into a washing line by tying our piece of rope around the balcony posts at several different angles and draping our sopping clothes over it in the direct sun light.
I love being a backpacker.

In the afternoon Jake and I hired a couple of bikes (this time Jake managed not to break his) and attempted to ride out to a near by tofu bean-curd village, supposedly a 30 minute or so ride away.

It was not 30 minutes away, that’s for sure. Maybe by Myanmar standards it’s 30 minutes away… and by 30 minutes, they mean more than an hour. Not that this mattered, of course, we had a lot of time to enjoy, however it did mean we underestimated the ride and how far we could go before the sun would set…

The road out to the tofu village was incredibly bumpy and in such a poor condition that made riding along it a lot more fun. When we weren’t concentrating on avoiding massive pot holes or ensuring we didn’t break our necks in the process, we attempted to negotiate road side dwelling water buffalo, hundreds of motorbikes, tractors, construction vehicles, road workers, fellow tourists on bikes and the occasional stray dog… all the while, trying to soak in some of the most spectacular rural and mountainous scenery. It was stunning and by bike was the best way to see it.

We continued riding for more than fifty minutes; heading out over the pot holes, up gravel and dirt tracks, through spectacular scenery and past one very cute albino water buffalo grazing on the road side, we were still no where near (or maybe we were?) the tofu village… After passing the third construction site where road side workers in thongs negotiated bull dozers and all sorts of hazardous conditions, we were at a loss to where we actually were. Clearly, the map we had wasn’t as ‘to scale’ as we thought…

As it started to get close to dusk, we were still not in tofu heaven and decided to give in; there was no way I was attempting to ride back to our guest house in the dark on those roads – with no lights on my bike or along the roads, I was sure I’d either hit a pot hole, a buffalo or a motorist and never be seen again.
After an hours ride out, we’d definitely missed out on the “30 minute ride away” tofu village. Perhaps the Burmese just ride a lot faster than us…

It ended up being about a two hour bike ride, which I was pretty chuffed about. I really enjoy riding around, it’s pretty easy – although pretty hairy and stressful at times – and the fact that almost every second person is on a bike makes it somehow more enjoyable. I like the relaxed “bike culture,” you could say. Back in town, we headed straight up the main street  for the so-called “night market.” There were only a couple of stalls – all food – with no customers and prices that were pretty expensive compared to other parts of the town, so we gave it a miss and headed back to our guest house to drop off the bikes.

Heading back into town, funnily enough we ran into Matt again so we stopped for a quick chit-chat and confirmed tomorrows plans before continuing up the main street.
We’d decided to do something “unique” here in Nyaung Shwe tonight and go to see the only traditional Burmese Marionette Puppet Show in town; it sounded ‘cute,’ shall we say, so we decided to experience it for ourselves.
A 20-odd minute walk up the main street and we found ourselves in the tiny garage of a local man’s home, where a home-made puppet theatre had been set up and  a heap of plastic chairs. From the walls and ceilings hung several intense-looking wooden puppets of all different sizes and figures. Whilst the man collected our 3,000 kyats each for the 20-minute performance, a little boy helped to lower the stage curtain.
A couple of mosquito coils were lit, the lights in the garage were turned off and the door shut, the guy next to us had a beer in-hand from the pub down the road and the Burmese-style show began…

The following 20 minutes were interesting – unique, even – to say the least and once we had endured a very strange recording about Burmese marionette puppetry and the history, the little man began to jump and dance around on the home-made theatre stage to various musical numbers with some very intricate movements and very interesting wooden puppets. He was skilled, absolutely, and it was pretty ‘cute’ to experience this. “Cute” really does seem to be the best word to describe this whole event; it was innocent and ‘homely,’ in a way.

Once the puppet show was over and we left without feeling the need to purchase one of the hanging wooden string puppets as a souvenir, we attempted to find a non-tourist place for dinner. Unsuccessful, we decided to re-try the night market now that it was later in the hope that there would be more stalls. We later regretted our decision.
On arrival back at the market there were indeed a couple more stalls and a few reasonably prices dishes so we found a place that looked somewhat reliable and we ordered from the menu “Vegetarian Claypot with noodles.”

In true classic Asian style…the dish came out with two very large steaming, very non-vegetarian chicken feel draped over noodles and a few bits of limp carrot. Foolishly I took it back to the stall operator and explained I wanted vegetarian (really, I should’ve learned my lesson by now) so, what did she do? Whipped out a couple of chop sticks and poked them around in the clay pot, fished out a bit of chicken feet here and there, then handed it back. Put off by the limp, bubbly skin of those boney, boiled talons, needless to say I didn’t eat much. What I did eat wasn’t that good, either…
It really seems food in Myanmar is hit-or-miss. Tonight was definitely a miss.

After a long, sleepless bus ride last night and a day of adventure, pot holes and puppetry today, both of us were almost asleep by 10pm – despite the sound of churning boat motors and construction that was still going on. We’ve got another early start tomorrow and a full day on Inle Lake. This has been a day we’ve been waiting for and I seriously can’t wait!

 

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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…

Myanmar Eats: 1 – 2.11.2013

Our share taxi arrived on time this morning – and by on time, I mean on Myanmar time – just half an hour or so later than organised. Nice! Earlier than we’d been expecting!

I’d been trying to work out exactly what a “share taxi” would involve – it always seems to differ in every Asian country and after seeing so many different types of rust-buckets and packed full of people transportation zipping about on the roads, I was apprehensive. Jacob was betting on a mini-van, I was betting on a more pick-up truck style vehicle. Turns out, a share taxi is just a normal rusty shell of a car packed full of parcels to be delivered along the way to the final destination – which in our case, is Pyin Oo Lwin.

Our driver packed both Jacob and I, our backpacks, a heap of golf clubs, a few large boxes, two Burmese women and their belongings and a few more parcels into the tiny hatchback before lead-footing it for an entire two hours up massive hills, around hair-pin bend and tight curves and over taking anyone and every vehicle within sight.

We stopped twice (besides the several times the driver parked, leaving the car running, to deliver a parcel): once when the engine got too hot and our driver had to hose it down and again to get petrol. The petrol station was very oddly more like a small party – about twenty or thirty staff in blue tee-shirts and bare feet stood around just chatting and waiting for a car to re-fuel, music pumping in the background to keep them entertained. When we arrived, they all went wild for these two whities jammed into the back of the car, faces almost smeared against the window glass. Whilst our car was re-fuelled, five or ten people stood outside our car door smiling the BIGGEST smiles at us and laughing uncontrollably whenever one of them tried to speak English with us. All we could do was laugh and smile back. Momentarily one of the smiling women left, returning with about fifteen cups of raspberry cordial for us to drink. We took two. We told them we were going to Pyin Oo Lwin and they started hand gesturing a “shivering” motion, explaining to us it would be very cold. I wondered what the Burmese considered to be “very cold…”
Once our car was filled with fuel and ready to roar again, we waved goodbye to several massive smiles and sipped on our cordial as our driver put his lead foot back down.

The drive was wonderful though, beautiful scenery and pretty quick – just a couple of hours and we were absolutely a world away from hectic Mandalay. On arrival, we dumped our bags at our very fancy guest house and headed out to explore the town…

Pyin Oo Lwin was colonised by the British way back in the day and the old weathered buildings and Purcel Clock Tower (the wanna-be Big Ben of Myanmar) had a distinctly British look and feel – a charm that certainly seems to exist throughout this cute, welcoming, dusty town.
We admired the surroundings as we strolled up the main street looking for a place to get some local food for lunch. We discovered what we thought was a local place and had some average noodles there – later we realised what a touristic eatery this actually was. Jacob spied a local curd shop – he’s got a nose for this sort of thing now – and we ended up there sipping thick yoghurt through curly straws, watching the locals around us and the interesting street scenes continually unfolding. Horse drawn carts with wooden Cindarella-style coaches (although not as glamourous – think weathered wooden boxes, filthier, tackier and with sick looking horses) trotted past and locals roasted peanuts by the side of the road. Men huddled around betel nut stands, buying leaves and spitting massive glugs of burgundy goo onto the road and pavement. Women could be seen in their shop fronts, knitting hats and jumpers whilst waiting for their next customer. Children were playing, tea shops were busy, the air was fresh(ish) and it felt really nice to be here.

We took a stroll through the big Central Market area – it was filled with all sorts of goods and bits and pieces. There was cooking items, house hold items, clothing, shoes, underwear, food items and lots of knit wear that was oddly enough, exactly the same at every shop – besides one lady we found who was crocheting gorgeous little beanies. Moving away from this area of the market, we found ourselves out in the open-air produce market where all sorts of fresh foods were being sold. Deep fried insects, scary meats, unidentifiable items and lots of beautifully coloured fruits and vegetables dotted the ground and small tables. Women were fanning fresh fish that were displayed in metal bowls under the heat of the sun, right next to whole dead chickens, fried birds and little quail eggs. I think I’ve said it before, but I adore these types of wet Asian markets, and I never tire of looking through them; there is always something new to find that we didn’t see the last time we looked..

People were smiling at us, babies were being taught to wave and blow kisses and smiled when they saw us, the women kept telling me I was beautiful and pointing to my skin… People here were friendly and no one was touting or trying to sell us anything. It felt like a place where we would be really able to experience the local life style in an honest, non-touristic manner.

Evening time and we were hungry for some street food. We heard there was a night market here that sold “Myanmar snacks” but what we found was an entire street filled with tents and plastic chairs, metal tables and wonderful smells. Smoke and steam was rising from the hundreds of hot pots, woks, stove tops, barbeques, grill plates, coal fires and steel pots at every different street stall. Men and women and children were all busy – either cooking or eating – everyone seemed to be there. There was so much to choose from, so many different foods being cooked and prepared, boiled, chopped, fried and stirred. The organs and pig heads being cut into bite size pieces with house-hold scissors may have been immediately scrapped from our list of choices, but the vegetarian options were in abundance and there was certainly no threat of going hungry. We strolled by each stall looking and choosing what we might want to try. We ended up at a little noodle tent, slurping Shan Noodles and enjoying being amongst it all. Moving on, we found a place that was jam packed with people and with a queue forming for take away. The staff were under the pump and we decided this was the place to be. We enjoyed a clay pot of steamed vegetables, tofu and various noodles mixed with chilli and other spices and sauces. $1.50 bought us an incredible dinner; one of the highlight meals of this entire trip to date, and we were definitely coming back tomorrow night.

Taking advantage of the fast internet back at our hotel, our evening was spent watching one of my favourite movies of all time and drinking hot 3-in-1 milo. A tiny bit of normality for us; it felt a bit like home.

I really like this place, it’s quiet and calm and slower paced – I’m not missing the overwhelming honking and pollution that we found in Mandalay and Yangon. However, we’ve found this ‘quieter’ pace to be the case since arriving in Myanmar and it’s been olldy enough a little difficult for us to adjust to.
Maybe we were expecting something completely different? Although, I don’t actually know what we were expecting – or if we had any specific expectations at all.
It’s certainly a country I want to know more about, but at the same time, I wonder if it’s possible for tourists to get a real insight into what’s been happening and what is currently happening. We feel very much like outsiders – very much tourists – with no way of getting closer to the locals.
Furthermore, our budget is quite limiting – due to such high accommodation costs we can afford little more than accommodation, some transport and food/drink each day for about $50 – 55 (a lot more than the $35 we’d planned on spending). I guess Mandalay, for example, could’ve been completely different for us had we been able to afford more.

I’m hoping that as we move away from the big cities – now in Pyin Oo Lwin and into Hsipaw and Inle Lake – we’ll be more mesmerised and captivated by this country. We feel it has a lot of noticeable similarities to other countries we’ve visited – we keep being reminded of Laos and Thailand – and we hope Myanmar offers us something wildly different and makes us fall in love with her. No doubt there is immense beauty and a fascinating culture and history to be discovered here if we take the time to find them.
I think maybe I had this picture of what Myanmar would be and besides the temples of Bagan, I haven’t quite found it yet…

Our second day in Pyin Oo Lwin turned out to be pretty awesome and left us feeling way more motivated and back in “travel mode” than the previous day (and this morning).

We ended up organising a tuk tuk to take us out to the starting point of the Ani Sakan Waterfall hike early this morning; whilst we knew it would be spectactular and feeling as though “we should absolutely go,”  for some reason we were feeling unmotivated. I guess, as I’ve learned during this trip, “the scariest moment is just before it starts” – aka, “the hardest part is getting out the door.”  As soon as we jumped into the back of the rust bucket open-air tuk tuk and began hurtling down the bumpy, dusty roads, we were loving it. The cool breeze was beautiful against our faces and we enjoyed watching life whizz past us – often in the form of men hanging out of or clinging onto the side of pick up trucks whilst they waved and called out to us.

Arriving at the start of the short trek, we grabbed a couple of chewy lychee drinks and set off downhill. Instantly a group of very young Burmese girls began following us without saying a word and expected payment to walk with us down to the falls and back. I wished they were at school instead. We declined their service and continued down the path that almost instantly became steep and windy and continued that way for the next 40 minutes or so as we made our way down, down, down. The path was steep and often muddy or covered in loose stones and rocks. Images of my ass getting covered in mud from a potential (hilarious) slip often crossed my mind…
The scenery was breath taking and we often paused to marvel at the sheer cliff faces, forest, waterfalls and mountainous backdrop before us.

By the time we reached the bottom we could hear the massive falls so close and see the mist rising through the forest. The track turned to watery mud and we inched our way closer, trying even harder not to slip. When we made it up a small muddy incline the falls came into view: roaring and massive, they fell from a huge height and the mist almost instantly covered us in a fine layer of water. So refreshing.

Climbing down from the falls we passed smiling monks who greeted us with “mingalaba” and laughed as we all slid around in the mud and slush beneath our feet. The only difference was we were kitted out in hiking boots and they were barefoot. I think we were at more risk of slipping.

Downhill had been “easy” in comparison to going uphill and it took us just over 50 minutes to climb the steep incline and arrive back at our starting point; puffed out, we were happy to get back into the tuk tuk and ride through the cool breeze. I love sitting in these open air tuk tuks watching the scenery and the life going by. Firstly, the scenery is beautiful and secondly, there is always someone hanging out of their car/truck/van/tuk-tuk/pick up/motorbike/bicycle waving and smiling and laughing at us foreigners. At one point a man on a motorbike drove past carrying hundreds of dead chickens all hanging off the back. Oh Asia…

Back in Pyin Oo Lwin, we took another stroll through the streets and found ourselves back at the “night market” which, at 3pm…wasn’t so night-y. It was never the less full of street food stalls with smoking woks and boiling pots, cooking smells wafting and people everywhere eating and cooking and sitting at metal tables on TINY plastic chairs under tents. People were hard at work – and then there were those hard at eating. Last night it had been a bit dark and overwhelming when we came here and we’d chosen the sorts of meals we knew were ‘safe’. Today that was not happening – we wanted to try everything these little Myanmar food stalls had to offer. Most snacks and meals cost us between 100 – 300 kyat, (10 – 30 cents) which meant that we could hop from vendor to vendor, try every new delicious food, end up extremely full and with only the equivalent of .80c less in our wallet.
We had noodle soups, deep fried tofu, grilled fruits, rice paper pancakes, takoyaki-type rice balls, coconutty things, vegetable bits, salads, some sort of nut thing…

We returned late that night to the night market for another snack (or five) and the best cup of Burmese milk tea we’ve had. It amazed me that this night market was absolutely tourist-free, the three times we have visited this central place in the past two days we’ve not seen one other tourist – and there are a lot of tourists here. The Chinese restaurant down the road, however, seemed to be brimming with them. I wonder how much longer this market will remain a local-only type of place, souvenir and tout-free.

Back at our room we followed our standard ‘the night before we leave this place’ routine: we acknowledged we needed to pack our cases, we procrastinated for a good hour (or three) and then finally – way too late at night to have the energy or motivation to do so – we got our things together and packed our packs.

After today’s little trekking adventure and the joyous experience of trying new things and eating with all the locals, I feel my excitement about travel and being here in Myanmar start to heighten a lot more; I feel so much more motivated and excited to be here than I was feeling when we were in the big cities.
Tomorrow we’re taking the scenic train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I think the distance is something like 200km and takes around… oh, you know, between 4 and 11 hours by train! It’s been described as one of the 50 “must-do” train travel routes in the world, but also, as being “painfully slow.” I’m a little apprehensive about what a train trip involves in Myanmar, but at the same time I of course want to experience it. If it’s anything like some of the scenery we’ve seen else where in Asia, no doubt it will be stunningly beautiful… if it’s anything like the crowded, jam packed trains we’ve seen else where in Asia, 4 – 11 hours may end up feeling a lot longer. We shall see.

From what I have read, Hsipaw is a pretty magnificent place and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what’s on offer. It sounds like a place you can really start to ‘feel’ and take your time in – I love those sorts of places. I much prefer to travel and just get a feel for a place rather than hop from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, so Hsipaw sounds like it will  be perfect…

For now, Pyin Oo Lwin – you’ve been pretty great.

Deer Japan: 9 – 10.10.2013

Saying goodbye to beautiful Kyoto and our new friends, we were sad but excited – we were Nara bound with just two nights and just one full day to explore the city. Again we were couch surfing; our fourth hosts in Japan and our first family with children. Megumi, Koji and their two young children Nazuna and Tsubasa are very experienced hosts, and knew how to look after us. Both the children speak very fluent English and are extremely outgoing and energetic; they really seem enjoy spending time with other people.

The two nights we spent with this family were a great experience for us; we spent a lot of time with the kids playing various games, we had some great conversation and shared some absolutely incredible home-cooked Japanese food.

Our one day in Nara went by way too fast and was thoroughly enjoyable. Awake early after another late night (Japanese people seem to sleep a lot later and get up a lot earlier than we are used to!), we were tired as we boarded the train to Nara City station, but as we stepped off the train we were ready to explore for the day.

It was incredibly hot today – 31 degrees – which is very strange for October, we’re told.  Actually, we’ve been really lucky; it’s been beautiful weather and often very hot every day since arriving in Japan (besides the morning on the day we left Kyoto, where it rained heavily for a few hours due to a typhoon some distance away), so the jumper I bought in India to wear in Japan has not yet been of any use….

We began our day by simply walking around Nara city; it was reasonably familiar to me and I could remember quite a lot of the places and directions from my stay there last year which was good. Last time my mum and I were here in Nara we visited a community centre that housed an earthquake simulator and a lot of insightful and fascinating information about earthquake-proof building foundations, which I really wanted Jake to see. Close by I knew of a really beautiful restaurant that served Nara specialties – a type of sushi wrapped in leaves, and a delicate soup with thin noodles. I wanted to find these places at some point today.

We walked around the town which was beautiful in the sunshine and stopped to pet the many sweet deer that were strutting about, occasionally head butting tourists who refused to hand over their deer crackers. Very funny animals that make a very cute sound.

We visited a pond filled with turtles and surrounded by a stunning view, explored several temples, took a stroll through the streets and stood awe struck by the massive 5 story pagoda – built without using any nails!

Walking around the town was just so beautiful, seeing the deer and the people and everyone so happy. The sunshine bought out ice cream carts and little food vendors, and lots of tourists. I loved watching the deer congregating around the little ‘deer cracker’ vendor’s stalls, as if so hopeful they might just get lucky by looking oh so cute and get given a snack.

We eventually found our way to the community centre, and I was so glad we’d found it. We had a look around the centre and both took a seat in the earthquake simulator, which was quite terrifying when imagining how this would’ve been in reality. From there, we sat for a bit enjoying the air conditioning, free green tea and wifi before heading back out into the heat of the day.
Nearby, I recognized the restaurant I’d been looking for and we ended up eating a delicious lunch there, where we met an older Australian couple who were rather funny.

After lunch, we spent some time wandering through the little shops before heading towards  a famous temple, past thousands of beautiful ancient stone lanterns covered with moss. It was shady in the forested area, deers were bleating and it was so serene. In the temple, we came across a wedding taking place and stood for a while watching the brides elaborate hair, make up and outfit being adjusted, as well as everyone else in the wedding party. The photographers smoothed every crease and fold in the material, and combed every hair into place; this precision took a long time but the wedding party looked amazing. I felt a bit guilty standing there photographing them, but a million other tourists were too – I guess they chose to have their wedding in a touristic city, in a touristic area, in a famous temple…

We wandered back into town eventually, and before we knew it it was late afternoon and time to head back to our host’s home to spend and enjoy the time with their family and share another delicious home-cooked Japanese feast.

Our time in Nara was quick, but wonderful.

Visas, Saris and Nepalese Fun: 27 – 29.09.2013

Our morning was spent lazily wandering the area in and around Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. We enjoyed more vegetable and buff momos from the Tibetan Momo Shop, along with milky chai before I bartered a taxi down and we traveled from Bhaktapur to the Myanmar Embassy. We planned to pick up our passports there and meet Sarah, one of our couch surfing hosts for the next three nights.
Arriving at the embassy, we collected our visas and were overjoyed: a whole page of our precious passports was now covered with a beautiful looking Myanmar visa, ready to use! Relief – it’s now finally done.

Meeting Sarah at the embassy proved difficult; again she had the same trouble as we originally did with trying to actually find it. Eventually we took a taxi to near-by her home and met her there. We dropped off our bags and met the new addition to her family: one very cute and tiny puppy! Sarah then took us for our first “Nepali Bus Experience” – we took a “micro-bus” (a mini van type vehicle, often overflowing out the door with people) to an area for a late lunch.
From there, we walked to Patan’s Durbar Square, where we all attempted to ‘sneak’ in through a back way so we wouldn’t have to pay the expensive entrance fee. We were stopped however, and only had a few minutes to view the historic area. It was indeed beautiful; similar to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur.

Patan Square

Patan Square

Patan area was bustling and hectic and crowded with life and activity, people, motorists, dogs and street stalls. Shops lined the street, and our entire surroundings were filled with busy people selling and buying and trying to move about. Bag sellers stood wearing twenty or thirty backpacks over their bodies, strolling up and down the street. Fruit sellers weighed their goods, motorbikes honked, children squealed and men with giant wooden sticks covered in colorful balloons for sale moved about the hectic crowds without a single one bursting.

So exciting!

So exciting!

Bag Sellers... Efficient!

Bag Sellers… Efficient!

Sarah mentioned that tomorrow night (we’re going to a party her gym is throwing for an upcoming festival) all the women will be wearing saris. Having packed for 7 months of travel, a sari was not one of the items currently stuffed somewhere in my backpack, however, I wanted to wear one. I’d been wanting to try one on since we arrived in Sri Lanka to see women dressed beautifully, covered in colour. That want had continued throughout our travels in India, and into Nepal. Amazed at how cheaply they could be purchased for, and at how quickly they could be tailored, Sarah and I enjoyed browsing through the various beautifully coloured materials to find a sari material I liked. Jacob took a seat on the “mans seat.” I chose a light grey material with pink flowers on it; it reminded me of Japanese cherry blossom. Upstairs, a man picked from a big range of coloured materials, a colour that perfectly matched the flowers on my sari and would be soon measured, cut and stitched to make my blouse. With my sari and blouse material and a petticoat for underneath, we moved to the next room where a woman measured me with such speed and precision I knew she’d been doing this for a long time. I paid for my sari ($11 AU) and for my blouse material and petticoat ($4.50 AU) and was given a receipt; tomorrow it would be completely tailored ($3) and ready for me to collect! We left the shop and I felt really excited to be able to not only finally wear my very own tailor made sari, but also to have the opportunity to dress up for something! Hiking boots, worn-in thongs/flip-flops, travel pants, faded t-shirts and ‘quick-dry’ tops might be convenient, but after months of travel they are ingrained with swat, filth and dirt; it was exciting to look a bit pretty instead.

Sari Shopping!

Sari Shopping!

Our evening was spent with our hosts; we enjoyed an amazing dinner – real Nepalese food – lots of rice, veggies and dahl bat, along with good conversation and new friends. I really enjoy couchsurfing; every time we’ve meet new people it has felt as though we’re just meeting old friends again. It’s such a warm way to be welcomed in and travel through a country, and a brilliant way to share cultures, experiences, food and our lives. I get excited every time we meet a new host – and a little nervous – and it’s an exciting prospect that now we have more than a month straight of couch surfing, including both here in Kathmandu and in Japan.

Tomorrow is Saturday – our host’s only day off; we don’t have a lot of plans and that is fine by us. Tomorrow evening is the party, and more importantly, us girls are wearing saris. I’m excited – like a child before a birthday – about something so simple.
Tomorrow is also our second-to-last day in Nepal – already! – I can’t believe how quickly the time is going here, but then I guess I never expected one week to go slowly.

Saturday – aka “the day of the party” was a relaxing but a thoroughly enjoyable day! I like the idea of experiencing Nepal through couch surfing, rather than blindly hopping from one sight-seeing tourist destination to the next.
We all had a leisurely morning just chatting and sitting around, then Sarah and I went shopping whilst Jake stayed back and did our washing. Who got the better deal?

After shopping, we headed back to Patan to the material shop where my sari was being made. We arrived an hour earlier than we were told to; at that point it had not even been started. Lucky we did go early – I’m learning that “Nepali time” is a lot like “Laos time” – things and people tend to run on their own time and schedule, meaning “pick up the sari at 1 o’clock” might actually mean something like… “the sari will be ready by… 2 or 3 o’clock… maybe later, maybe earlier, who’s to say?”

We came back at 1 o’clock, after strolling around, eating an ice cream and getting caught in a small rainstorm. My beautiful sari and newly-made blouse was presented to me and I went to try it on. After first putting it on the wrong way, I eventually squeezed into the tiny blouse that didn’t cover much more than my breasts, shoulders and a tiny part of my upper arm. I’ve never been one to reveal my stomach – not a part of my body I particularly like – so staring back at my reflection, I was both a bit intimidated and some how liberated by this very ‘small thing’…

I asked Sarah to just see that it all looked right, and as soon as I got the okay from her, one of the woman in the shop barged in to my little change room, stared me up and down, smiled, laughed, dragged me out of the change room and stroked my bare back whilst she exclaimed to everyone in the room how beautiful and white I was (in Nepalese), to which everyone else was replying, oh yes, so beautiful and white. Sarah laughed and interpreted this all for me; it was both a funny and odd experience.

Sari in hand, we headed back through the crowds and bag-wearing bag sellers, street stalls and fruit sellers, back home to prepare for the party and get ready. Exciiiiiting….! Saris are complicated and take a lot of practice to get ‘right’, it appears; Sarah and I spent some time watching ridiculously fast and over dramatic youtube clips of how to put on and wear a sari correctly, before Sarah helped dress me in my sari; together we tucked and folded and pleated and adjusted the meters of fabric, layering it and holding it, moving and pulling it to try and get it to look right. It felt really exciting to be wearing it; it sounds so odd and childish to say but I had a lot of fun.
In our saris, we took a heap of photos and strutted about, unable to sit down for fear of messing up or ruining the work that had gone into putting out outfits on.

Dress Ups

Dress Ups

It was pouring with rain up until minutes before we had to leave, so Sudaman – Sarah’s husband – went out to hail a taxi and arrange a fair price (before the driver could see three white people and hike up the price). To get to the taxi, the four of us had to walk down the muddy path first, with me hiking up my sari to my knees to avoid the mud.

The party was a mix of people and everyone seemed to be eating and chatting and having fun; most people spoke English and we were able to chat and feel very much welcome, which was nice. Even more awesome was that most of the women wore saris – together everyone looked really beautiful and elegant (this party was the most elegant I had been in the last few months of travel, and no doubt the most elegant I would be for the next four).

We spent our evening dancing to Hindi music and Bollywood hits remixed, and eating way too many deep-friend cheese balls and steamed momos. It was great fun, and I had the realization that this was all possible  because we chose to interact with locals and had the opportunity to meet these people through couch surfing. I thought, how lucky we are to experience this, rather than wandering through the crowded and overpriced touristy area of Thamel; what we would’ve probably ended up doing had we not couch surfed. I feel so happy that when we travel, we are making the effort to get deeper than just “the number one attraction on trip advisor” or the “top pick” in Lonely Planet; these experiences and moments are far more memorable and enjoyable in my opinion.

I’m grateful to be here in Nepal; really, I’m just so grateful to be traveling. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing – we’re so used packing and unpacking and moving, choosing where to go next and what we’ll do and see there, bargaining for this and that, checking that the food is vegetarian and that our water bottle seals are secure – it can become a blur of what has become our lifestyle, mixed with how amazing our lifestyle really is right now. Traveling has certainly, for me at least, become my normal and whilst I adore it, sometimes I forget to step back and make a point of acknowledging that right now, in this moment, I am doing what I love the most. I am exactly where I want to be.

I’m still amazed at how quickly our time in Nepal has come to an end, and both Jacob and I certainly don’t feel ready to leave this country; perhaps it’s because we saw just the tiniest snippet – enough to make us want to see more. This is a country that I want to come back to for a lot longer next time.

On our final day in Kathmandu – and Nepal! – we woke up early and were out the door before 7am, walking down the dirt path towards the bus stop ready for a full day of exploring and enjoying. Sarah and Sudaman helped us to negotiate the buses, which are a bit confusing and a little bit difficult for a foreigner to negotiate (okay, okay, a little bit difficult is an understatement in my case!). It took two buses (with a chai stop in between) to get to Boudanath; a famous holy sight where we were meeting Anjan – Sarah’s friend. We arrived just after 8am, and already the place was buzzing with pilgrims and holy men, monks and tourists. Shops were open selling all the usual touristy trinkets, the smells of coffee poured out of the many cafes and the sound of prayers could be heard from the surrounding temples.

Good morning Kathmandu

Good morning Kathmandu

Boudnath Stupa

Boudanath Stupa

Anjan was so generous to spend his morning with us; he guided us through Boudanath Stupa and around the area which was really interesting, and he spent time taking us into temples and showing us different areas and view points. At one point we were able to see the monks chanting inside the temple, and listen to the beautiful melodies they were creating – this sound is indescribable and I could’ve listened to it for hours; it’s encapsulating and enchanting; almost hypnotic.
We stopped for a cup of milky tea at a coffee stand that was crowded with monks having their daily caffeine hit; it was a really cool sight to see and be amongst – watching the religious practices amongst a mix of with tourists and locals, and lots of pigeons.

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Anjan then led us towards Pashnupathi – a large area classed as a world heritage sight, filled with temples and also used as a cremation sight; similar to Varanasi in many respects. The entrance fee was 1000 NR each, and we didn’t want to pay that to see bodies being burned, so rather, Jacob, Anjan and myself walked around the entire area, looking in from the gates as we walked through colourful stalls, past palm readers and open-air butcher shops, over hills and down to a point where we were able to view the cremations from a distance.

Jake and I had a wonderful time with Anjan and were so glad to have spent some time with him. He saw us off on the main road, where we boarded a public-style tuk tuk (driven by a female! Our first ever public transport ride with a female driver – woohoo!!) and squished in for a bumpy ride to Kathmandu Mall, nearby Thamel – our next destination.

In Thamel, we explored the shops a little more and stumbled upon a tiny momo shop selling delicious plates of steamed veggie momos for 40 rupees! Bargain – lunch for both of us cost 80 cents!… We chilled out for a while in the same place we’d found on our first day in Thamel, using the wifi and drinking cup after cup of lemon tea. Soothing.

We left Thamel around 4:30pm and planned to go back to Sarah and Sudaman’s home to cook them dinner as a ‘thank you’ for having both of us. As it turns out, we greatly overestimated our ability to find the bus, and underestimated the time it would take to get back to their home… After struggling to find the right micro bus for about an hour, we were about to hail a taxi when we found the right bus and even got a seat! Success! Little did we know that shortly after boarding the 12-seater micro bus (mini van) at 25 rupees a person, we’d be wishing we paid the exorbitant amount for a taxi.

We counted more than 45 bodies at one point inside this tiny van – images of clown after clown climbing out of a mini came to mind, but instead, the reality was lots of Nepalese people pushing and shoving and cramming into and out of the van at every stop. More than once, the driver got out and opened up the back door, shoving more people into the back of the van behind the seats in a space I didn’t know was even possible to stand in. In Nepal, it’s possible.

The sky got dark quickly, the traffic on the roads started to thin out (by Kathmandu standards) and it started to rain. The micro bus, however, didn’t thin out and our legs were soon numb from being so tightly jammed into our seats. I started to worry after we’d been on the bus for more than an hour, and didn’t seem to be anywhere near where we had to be.

Eventually we recognized the area that we had to get off at, and went straight to the nearest convenience store to ask for directions. We ended up calling Sarah from there, buying a heap of drinks, eggs for dinner, biscuits and bread, and walking back to the house feeling terrible we’d run out of time to cook anything spectacular.

Sarah was out when we got home – she was meeting a guy from the UK who was interested in teaching in Nepal – but Sudaman and their beautiful puppy were there to greet us. Sarah had bought buffalo mince meat so we were able to cook a spin on “Australian-style Rissoles” (more ‘The Castle’ quotes spring to mind).

Sarah came home, along with Howard, the UK guy,  who bought a bottle of South Australian wine and stayed for dinner. The power cut out so the three of us – Jacob, Sarah and myself – cooked in the dark by torch and head-torch light; an experience I enjoyed – we won’t get that anywhere else during our travels! Dinner was great – good conversation and great food; it was an unexpected but enjoyable way to spend our last evening with our couch surfing hosts and our last evening in Nepal, and I went to bed with mixed feelings: happy about how we’ve spent our time here, sad that we have to leave so soon, excited to be going to Japan tomorrow, and both ready and not quite ready to leave this area of the continent. Japan in a way is acting as an unofficial ‘breaker’ in our travels: we have been traveling in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – prior to Japan, and after, we’ll be in South-East Asia.

We’ve got so much to be excited about, and so much to look forward to. Tomorrow we leave a country, board a plane, fly to another country, board another plane, and touch down in Japan – my ‘spiritual homeland’ as I call it. It’s a new part of our travels, a new part of our journey, a new adventure and a new experience. I’m just so excited.

Nepal has been absolutely wonderful – incredibly beautiful and hospitable – and I am looking forward to coming back here again some day in the not-too-distant future.

Back to Bhaktapur, Nepal: 25 – 26.09.2013

Our morning started early; we had chai with our couch surfing host Hem this morning, a brief but nice opportunity to get to know him a little more; he shared some stories and photographs, and we discussed more about life in Nepal and in surrounding countries such as Tibet, Bhutan and China. We could tell he is a generous and genuine person, with a real passion for his country and for politics. He was really intelligent and it would’ve been great to have more opportunities during our short stay to talk with him like we did.

We took a taxi from Milan Chowk area – close to Hem’s home – after bartering the taxi drivers down to a reasonable fee: we were headed for Bhaktapur, a UNESCO heritage town some 13kms away in Kathmandu Valley that is apparently renowned as “Nepal’s cultural gem” – a historic city famous for its beautiful temples and pagodas, its Indigenous Newari community, and its arts and culture: traditional art and crafts, dances, festivals, food and music. Bhaktapur is also one of the three royal cities in Kathmandu Valley. I’m fascinated…

Arriving into Bhaktapur, we were amazed at how close we were in distance to Kathmandu’s chaotic sprawl, but how far away we felt; it’s much quieter here and so incredibly beautiful – it feels like a world away.

There is a 1100 Nepalese rupee ($11AUD) entrance fee to enter the main area of Bhaktapur; Durbar Square – a fee that we feel is well worth it for the two days we plan to spend here. This beautiful town and its historic structures seem to be quite well maintained and preserved, so the fee is justifiable. Also, this place is simply incredible.

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We wanted to find a nice guest house here and weren’t in a real rus; our packs were not too heavy and we were happy to wander about and look at a few places, before finding a coffee shop with free wifi and enjoying a cup of caffeine whist scouring the internet for guest house recommendations.

Eventually, we settled on a place – Kumari Guest House – which is in a nice area of Durbar Square, situated a tiny bit out of the main area where all the bustle and noise is. The staff offered us a room for 1500 NR, which he dropped to 700 NR when I continually said “no, it’s too much. If we stay for 2 nights will you give us the room for 700?”  I’m getting better at this whole batering thing. Yessssss….!

Our afternoon was wonderful; we walked around as we pleased, explored the temples and pagoda areas, the square, the market and shop stalls, the pottery square (where a cute old man let me play on his pottery wheel and then became not so cute when he demanded 200 NR. I left feeling momentarily annoyed.) The pottery square is full of people making, drying, carving, stocking the large open-air kilns, firing the clay, and selling the end products. It’s smokey and full of people and clay hand-made goods, and a really interesting place to see. There are chickens scratching in the hay whist men and women work to make traditional products from clay – both by hand and by wheel.

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Cute old man...demanded money and then wasn't so cute.

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Durbar Square is difficult to describe; it’s just so magnificent and so beautiful, so relaxing and enjoyable. It’s pulsing with life and people, locals and tourists alike. Momos are being steamed in huge pots in lane ways, there are local chia stands dotted about, women in traditional Newari red and black saris wander the lanes and sell their fruits and vegetables, and the men wear gorgeous traditional hats.
It’s touristy, of course, with every second shop selling souvenirs and handicrafts at inflated prices, cafes selling coffee and free wifi, children selling their guide services and too many offers for taxis to Kathmandu at a “good price.” Regardless, it’s oddly nice; it’s still calm – it’s easy to spend hours walking around, the shops sell some beautiful handicrafts and it’s nice to browse.

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Bhaktapur is surrounded by stunning greenery and mountains, the skies are a beautiful blue, there is little traffic, and the people are friendly. As it got dark, religious ceremonies began to take place around the square and the sound of cymbols, bells and singing could be heard.

Our evening was spent eating beautiful fresh curd, kulfi ice cream, sipping chai and relaxing; we chatted with a fellow traveler who had some impressive stories and experiences to tell. We feel so happy to be here, and look forward to a great day tomorrow – especially because I am not setting the alarm.

   

We woke on our first morning in Bhaktapur feeling refreshed and hungry! Juju Dhau – a curd served in a ceramic cup – is famous in this area, and after enjoying it last night we wanted more. It feels as if today has just involved eating and drinking: we ate curd for breakfast and then visited a café we’d heard great things about. We ordered two coffees and two meals – one coffee and one meal came out; the staff member had “forgotten” the other two orders she’d written down, but we weren’t at all fussed. It meant we could eat momos at a tiny hole in the wall place we discovered, hidden from the road – the Tibettan Momo Shop. We enjoyed beautiful vegetarian momos and delicious chai. Our cheapest meal in Nepal to date, and also our best; it always seems to be the case. As we keep finding out, plastic chairs, metal plates and barefooted staff seem to offer up the best food experiences.

We wandered about the town looking into shops here and there and a few nice hours were spent in the shady court yard restaurant outside our guest house, drinking more chai and just being. We are loving the relaxed pace and the ability to just enjoy such a quiet space here in Bhaktapur – I could literally hear birds tweeting and nothing else, it was beautiful!

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So many dogs!

So many dogs!

We wandered around with no real direction again this evening, just enjoying the beauty surrounding us. This area would’ve been simply incredible in its heyday, and it’s nice to imagine how it would’ve looked. The temples and pagodas, buildings and cobbled streets – all still in such good condition offer a glimpse of how things would’ve looked. This place really has captured our imaginations, and our hearts.

We went back to the Tibettan Momo Shop again for dinner. It’s a tiny place completely hidden from view (lucky we chanced upon it during our explorations), and obviously a local-only type place. It was packed with locals enjoying Thukpa soup and momos, and the family running the place seemed quite excited to have us there. We tried fried buffalo momos, or “Buff Momos” as they’re known everywhere around town, and they were so delicious we ordered a second plate! I hadn’t expected to be eating buffalo here, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

We enjoyed more delicious curd for dessert – straight fresh from the ceramic bowl – whilst the man in the shop watched on with delight.

Back at our guest house, we could hear the cymbals and bells, the drumming and chanting coming from the nearby temples. It’s a beautiful background noise, and I felt really at ease here. We could spend longer here, quite easily, café hopping and strolling around. It would be nice to do some walks from here too, but we were happy enough just exploring the small area for the time we had here.

Tomorrow already we have to head back to Kathmandu – our passports and visas are ready to collect (and MUST be collected!) and we are meeting our hosts for the next three nights. We’re really looking forward to meeting them and enjoying Kathmandu with locals. There is a lot we want to see there and we only have 2.5 more days.

2.5 more days! It seems difficult to believe, we only just arrived here, right? It’s exciting and a little bit unbelievable that in a very short time, we’ll be in Japan!
I wonder if we will feel “culture shock” in a way, once we arrive in Japan? I know that after more than three months of travel in less developed countries and traveling on such a small budget, we will feel a bit of a shock in that sense. At the same time, I think it will be a wonderful “break” between where we’ve come from, and where we’re headed.

Being in Bhaktapur has allowed us to take a step back and travel slowly, enjoy our selves and our surroundings and begin to feel rejuvenated to the point where, I feel we’re back to our “optimum.” By the end of our time in India we were exhausted and a bit tired of traveling and being on the move constantly, but now I feel ready again and so excited to be somewhere new, pick up my pack and move, put it down somewhere else, meet new people and share stories and great food, explore places and try new things.

I absolutely adore traveling, more than I can express, and I can not even begin to portray or describe how overjoyed I am to be here, in Nepal… in the world… simply traveling.

Simply traveling...

Simply traveling…

See you again, India: 23.09.2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a journey. One I will never forget.

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

See you again, sometime, India.