Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Wishes From Thailand!

Time for the annual email Christmas card, woop!!! I can't believe it's Christmas Eve - I have to keep reminding myself that it's not July and there's been snow on the ground back home. Although, we did spend a few days in the mountains last week in the Tamil Nadu town of Ooty, and we also managed to stay in an old-school Christian hostel that was fully prepared for the big day – baubles and everything.

Going up 2500+ mtrs to Ooty meant a serious drop in temperature that our thin t-shirts and hippy pants just weren't ready for. We needn't have feared though, because Ooty seemingly has an endless supply of truly amazing retro jumpers, all for no more than about 60p. John couldn't resist this super special blue number, and was all too willing to model it for us:

Don't worry – he's posted it home so will be wearing it again on our return.

Now as if an online Christmas card weren't enough, we've also decided to make a short festive film showing bits of our time in India. Too much time on our hands? I think so.

How cute are the little kiddies at the end?!!! So adorable....and they just loved posing for pictures.

The film was great fun to make, & although John's been doing this kind of thing for years its pretty new for me. It's the 2nd short film we've made in recent months - here's an animation we made for the birthday of John's gorgeous niece, Gwen.   Future employers of John, I take full responsibility for the 'home-made' style :-)

The last couple of weeks in India were great, & probably the most chilled out of our whole time there. After a laaaaaaaazy week by the beach in Varkala, we put our swimming gear to rest and headed north east into the hills of Tamil Nadu. The bus rides there and back were spectacular, taking us through tea plantations, national parks and eucalyptus forests. We even spotted a couple of wild elephants on the way down to Mysore.

Ooty is a bustling hill station with a small pocket of tourists but none of the hassles we've experienced elsewhere. We met some lovely people in the hostel and spent a day trekking through the countryside with a local guide. It was pretty stunning and so nice to finally find true peace and quiet.

We were ready to move on though & head somewhere a little easier, which definitely sums up Thailand! Even the Indian airport proved difficult and we had to pay £100 for a flight out of Thailand that we won't be using, just to assure the check-in staff that we won't overstay our visa. Boo them.

After 5 days in Thailand we're still amazed by how efficient it is – signs and everything! We spent our first fun day in Bangkok with a friend we'd met in India, then took the overnight train southward - a bus & a boat journey later and we ended up in the small resort of Ton Sai. The pace of life is super laid back & the scenery is pretty picturesque, with amazing cliffs and jungle surrounding the small beach and blue water.

Unfortunately having avoided illness for the whole time in India I've somehow managed to get myself a bit sick, so have spent the past few days not eating and hibernating indoors.  We've managed to move to the island of Ko Lanta though, a couple of hours away by boat and have found ourselves a beautiful beach bungalow to spend the next few days. 

I guess that's it for 2011 then!  We hope you all have a wonderful Christmas & happy New Year!!!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Fort Kochin -> Kerala

So since my last cocktail, Ive had some more-  I had one called Black Colin.  I don't think you've ever heard of this one before, and im pretty sure its not travelled very far either. Ask your local weatherspoons. It was quite good though.

Fort cochin was a nice place to stop, we had a great day on bikes (my bike was called Hero, 0.6 tonnes, rod pull front brake, no rear), and Laura's was called Red something (one brake also, one pedal missing). They had working bells though, which in India is more important than having brakes.  That goes the same for cars too.   Still, they were 90p each for the day, which was a lot cheaper than the ones we hired in Valencia back in July.

A row of famous Chinese fishing nets along the estuary, cantilevered with large stone boulders, are swung up and down during the day to catch all sorts of fish.  

So on to Alleppey in Kerala, home to the backwaters and mighty houseboats.  I'd always been looking forward to this, and the waterways really were something to see.  Flexible (and cheap) as ever, we decided to do a canoe trip instead on the first day.  This was our guide. What's not to trust?

He'd obviously been to Blackpool Pier to get that hat.  Anyway, he took us to his humble house, which was just recovering from some flooding.  They were growing mango's, bananas, coconuts and pineapples in their garden.  We were fed some amazing food, served up and cooked in banana leaves by his wife, and then headed out into the canals.  Best just to show some pictures I think.

Now, our boat was rather more modest than the two above here.  A bit more man powered. A bit more, 'sawn off plastic garden chair seats'.  But that's the way we like to do things isn't it.  Actually, having the small canoe let us go into much much smaller canals, and see the sights above, whereas the large houseboats stick to the open waters.  And our little boat stopped at the Toddy Shop, a canal side 'bar' selling homemade coconut beer (slightly fermented, lightly fizzy mix of coco milk and ethanol in glass bottles).  We were told later that night to avoid it where possible, you can go blind.  Meh!

We were a bit torn about whether to go for the large boats as well, for the following day/night.  They did look really good, and would have been a rare slice of luxury for us.  Though for 22 hours on one of the boats above, moored up for the night and touring in the daytime, it was the same cost as 20 nights in a hotel for the two of us.  

We'd been asked by our canoe guide if we could help with getting an English visa for his daughter (and I don't think he meant with the paperwork), after mentioning earlier that we could tip him extra if we liked the trip.  There's really no escape, even out in the country, and it created a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere.  Anyway, after our long day paddling around with Blackpool Pier, we'd seen everything there was to see there, had a wonderful time, and had found a comfy, social and genuinely kind hotel with staff who really cared.

Plus, around the corner from the hotel, was a small car garage, where i bought a new horn controller for Roo (our van back home).  So we'll have 3 horns, playing 3 different songs/noises.  I know, it'll  be amazing.  A project for me and Dad when we get back home- what do you say??

We are presently in Varkala, a beach resort in southern Kerala.  We've actually been here over a week, since we're counting down days to Thailand, and just want an easy time of it now.  Its a cliff top path of bars, shops and restaurants, above a great beach with nice waves and a lot of palm trees spotted around.  Just the job! Its a bit touristy, but what the hey, its what we are after all :)


Ricksha! Ricksha!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Trains, Trains and More Trains...

Hello!  After a week of not really doing too much & keeping it low key, the fatigue we were feeling when John last wrote the blog has gone & we are once again super excited to be here. That's not to say there isn't still the daily hassles and constant bartering needed, but having rested a while we're enjoying the challenge once again.  Phew!!!

After the busy days in Jaipur, we shortened our Rajasthan plans somewhat and decided to just visit Pushkar and Udaipur, both smallish city's and on our route south.  Unfortunately this meant we didn't get to ride on a camel through the desert, but having spent half an hour on one in Morocco when I was 19, I'm glad to have escaped the saddle sore. 

Udaipur was beautiful, probably the nicest place we've been to so far and we managed to bag a great hotel right on the lake with superb views. 

Quiz time for all you James Bond fans out there – which 007 film used Udaipur as its backdrop??  The answer is Octopussy – lots of it was filmed there & so every night it was shown on a big screen at most restaurants in town.  Probably very annoying for the waiters who had to watch it over and over but great for us.  It reminded me of the days when James Bond was shown on ITV every weekend, we used to watch it as a family and I think my dad secretly wished he was Roger Moore....

It's wedding season in India and so even Udaipur's City Palace was being decorated for an upcoming wedding as we were looking around – it looked amazing.  So colourful & extravagant, we wish we could have stayed for the party.  Less than 3 weeks left in India but we're keeping our fingers crossed that we get a wedding invite before we leave – with most weddings hosting hundreds, if not thousands of people, a couple of extra guests won't matter, right?!

So our mission recently has been to travel south and over the past 4 days we've spent 3 nights on trains, 42 hours in total, travelled 2356 kilometres and been in 4 different states.  Not bad for £13 each.  I think it would have taken us a year in the van given the state of Indian roads.  It was actually quite fun and although we didn't have the best nights sleep we ever have, the snoring men were at bay so we did manage a bit of shut eye.   

There does seem to be a general lack of consideration for other travellers here though and any hopes of a lie-in were dashed when the family sharing our compartment decided they wanted to get up at 6.30am, turning on the lights and generally being as loud as they possibly could – seemingly normal behaviour here.   

The scenery from the train as we headed further south was beautiful...the deserts of Rajasthan became the lush green palm trees of Goa and Kerela. 

The Indian railways are obviously so important to the country, and the people's the biggest employer in the world for a start, and the amount of people that use the trains every day is incredible.  What I wasn't expecting to see so much of was how many people live on the railways – either in the stations or alongside the tracks, whether it be in tents or out in the open under blankets.  It's pretty harrowing to see whole families huddled around a fire as you whiz past on a train.   

We broke up our train marathon by spending one night in Palolem, a beach town in south Goa.  The first day was a bit of a daze  - I accidentally managed to fall asleep at a restaurant and John kindly got the waiter to take a photo of me, er...thanks John!

We did go on a wonderful boat trip though, just us and a local with loads of dolphins swimming alongside us. 

It was great to be by a beach and the pace of life immediately felt 10 times slower than the hectic north.  Our hut was a stones throw from the beach and so allowed plenty of time for lazing around and swimming in the sea.

We're now in Kerela, the most southerly state and are staying in the city Kochi for a few days.  It's a lovely town although almost feels more European than Indian – it even has traffic lights and street signs!  There's definitely a post-colonial feel here and the change in religious preference is evident with  churches and synagogues much more plentiful.  The large picture of Jesus in our guest house room is just slightly unnerving.

We've been pretty much t-total since being in India, having one beer a week or less, so last night we decided we deserved a treat and went on a mission to find a watering hole.  The lack of pubs in India means restaurants and hotels are the place to go, although you may find yourself drinking beer from a teapot as many places don't have the right licence.  As we approached one restaurant, John asked the fella's outside whether they served beer.  The guy quietly muttered under his breath that they didn't do beer but that they did serve cocktails.  This seemed to totally baffle John as when we were inside he gave the waiter a sly wink and said “I'll have whichever cocktail is a beer.”  I think he'd been watching too much James Bond – unfortunately the confused waiter once again stressed that they don't do beer and so he had to settle for a Pineapple Fizz, which he said was rubbish.  Better luck next time!!x

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Marble Magic

hello again fans-
well, a lot has been happening and right now we are sat on a rooftop cafe place (not as glamorous as it sounds) waiting for our food and feel about the most tired we have for as long as we can remember...

Back in Rishikesh, we had our last Hindi Lesson.  It was really nice to get a little  headway into the language, and one day further down the road maybe we will be able to say more than "This is not a train" and "this room is big, but dirty" etc.  Our teacher though, said we were "very gifted" and that it was a shame we couldn't stay and do more.  Eat that Whitley Bay High School german class!  Here is me and teach hanging out in his study.

From Rishikesh on the river Ganges, we made our way to Agra, via Delhi - a confusing one night stop over in our old faithful first hotel right next to New Delhi station ("Right past the men's street urinals, follow our noses, it'll be easy!") - a pity we were stupid and got a train ticket to Old Delhi station - the other side of the city.  Not a nice mistake to realise on arrival at 11pm, Delhi in the daylight is hard enough work to deal with.

Modelling my new tailored trousers...

So yes yes, Agra.  Home to the mighty Taj Mahal, and I was pretty excited about seeing this.  Laura not quite so! But I'll stand by saying it is one of the most incredible buildings/sights/things I have ever seen. Laura was won over and later said that it was 'Marble-ous'. Geddit?  :)  Its relatively expensive to visit in Indian terms, about £10 (25p if you're an Indian national though!), and so we got to stand in the queues marked 'High Value Ticket Holders'. Yeah!!  Arriving at the west gate at 7am ensured we got to see the morning sunrise over the white marble, and over the next 3 hours, the light gradually warmed, shadows appeared, and the mist burned away. I really was bowled over.  Here's some nice photos of the Taj, as well as the adjacent Mosque and Mausoleum (built of distinctive red sandstone), which are to the left and right in the grounds.

We didn't pay extra for a guide, of which there a lots (never an opportunity missed to scam/help a tourist here in India!)- though we did overhear one guide saying to a white couple "See how it gets bigger and bigger the closer you get..".  Now that's some good guiding!  Anyway, it was amazing and I'd recommend anyone to go and see it if they get the chance.

Agra itself is generally considered "Bad", and gets its own chapters on Scamming and aggressive hustlers which we had first hand experience but I wont go into that!  So we left Agra asap to its tenacious touts and bison and headed onwards to Jaipur.

Our train was a 4 or 5 hour 2nd class journey, and over the hard bench seats we got chatting to a family on the same trip to their home in Jaipur.  After several hours of pleasant chatting (Praveen was a scholar and had just finished his PHD in LED technology, which i was v interested in), we were invited to their home for some 'honest Indian hospitality and cooking'.  We jumped at the chance since they were certainly sincere with their kindness, and so the next night we caught a bus (a challenging mission / right pain) from the Pink City out to a suburb and their family home.

What followed was one of the best travel experiences we have ever had.  Neighbours from 3 directions came over to meet us and sat sheepishly grinning while we both drank chai and ate biscuits on their rooftop, feeling a bit scruffy and under-dressed.  Praveen and his family treated us like royalty, and proudly showed us around their home.  Laura was asked to sit with the women and I don't know what happened with that, though since none of them spoke English, I bet it went smoothly.  I went with the men which was much easier  and finally to the main event- The Meal.

Obviously we had presumed we'd all be eating together, so terror set in when we saw the table, with just the two places set and an array of dishes to sample.  And so, we both ate till we burst, while the family sat and stood around watching us and wondering how we were enjoying it, with Praveen translating.  They would eat after we left! An amazing evening! Praveen dropped us back at the bus stand on his motorbike, and we raced back to the city and our hotel.  A very memorable evening, with such kindness and sincerity. We were the first foreigners in their house, and it was the first Indian household we had been in. Laura had found a new friend in the young neighbour though- when explaining that she had once lived in Oxford, he replied "Yes yes! I have the Dictionary!"

In Ranthambhore national park, we were on the hunt for Tigers, and signed up for a Safari trip.  There is little else in Ranthambhore, so took the opportunity to use the TV in the room and the comfy bed for some proper R&R and general laziness.  Just what the doctor ordered!  The safari itself was an early morning trip out in a 16 seater 'Canter', which is sort of like an off-road flatbed truck with seats on, weighed down with tourists with cameras (in our case, Italian. Ciao!). There are 6 seater jeeps (Gypsies) too, but they are booked up until march next year apparently(!??).  We were really excited about this, especially Laura, who got out of bed faster than I think i've ever seen, outside of Christmas morning.

Unfortunately, our Guide was probably friends with the one from the Taj, and had very little info, other than pointing out what a deer was or what a crocodile was.  Still, riding in the Canter through the park was fun, and as it rattled and bounced along, we saw a lot of deer, some antelope, 2 crocodiles, an owl, a Vulture and some green birds.  And also a toilet block, inexplicably lost out in the bush.  Sadly no Tigers, who are clearly the star of the show.  They were having their Frosties probably, it was quite early.  We met a Swedish girl in our hotel, and I was very relieved to find I could still hold a half hour conversation in swedish, which has put me in a good mood and erased some doubt.

The last few weeks have been great, but we are both now feeling the fatigue of being in India.  We go from loving it to hating it, sometimes several times a day.  Its hard to convey on this blog, but we now mentally rate places we visit by how Easy or Hard they are to be in, which is what it has boiled down to.

Backpacking here can just be so difficult and frustrating.  It's generally like a Saturday afternoon on Oxford Street x 1000, the second you step out of your door.  The total lack of information / misinformation about transport, the noise, traffic, heat, the pollution, touts and hassles in the cities, the smells of food, petrol, urine, burning, litter, cows (all in one whiff sometimes) take their toll.

Despite all of this and that, we still see mind bending and wonderful scenes everyday; things which create those confused-grins across our tired faces.  I think we are learning that this is what India is all about, and once you get past the bad stuff, it really is an incredible place to be. So we are surviving- but just having to look after ourselves a bit more than normal.  If I slip on any more cow crap im gonna lose it man.

Our tickets from Jaipur to Pushkar were bought from the queue in the station marked for "Tourists, Senior Citizens and Freedom Fighters".  I think that is us, right??

We are Now in Pushkar, which is very relaxed and calm.  Hurrahh!

Not many pictures on us today, but see more from this post here

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Few Hundred Thousand Hindu's and The Ganges....

Hello!  After nearly a month we have decided to head on with our journey and finally leave McLeod.  We were sad to say goodbye but ready to move on and experience new adventures.  Our last week in McLeod was lots of fun, somehow involving not 1 but 3 trips to the local watering took us 3 weeks to find so I think we decided to make up for it.   Last weekend was our friend Jennifer's 30th birthday and so to celebrate we went on an overnight hike 1000m up a local hill/mountain – Triund.  

Our friends Jen & Jules....

I tend to favour flat walks lasting no more than 20 minutes but as it was Jen's birthday I was happy to oblige.  Reports of how long it would take us to get to the top varied greatly – some saying 2 and half hours, others saying more like 5.  We definitely fell into the 2nd category....  It was nice and relaxed though with plenty of chai stops along the way.  It was a beautiful walk, made quite mysterious with the cloud cover creeping up as we got to the top.  

Once on Triund (alt 2800mtrs), anyone staying overnight can rent out a tent, sleeping bag and blanket – perfect, or so we thought.  The man even put the tents up, so we didn't think twice about them until heading off to bed in the dark and realising that neither end of our tent zipped up.  That, the very cold temperatures and the group of barking dogs kindly keeping guard outside meant that none of us got more than an hours sleep.  That said, we had a great time – spent the evening round a campfire sipping whiskey to keep warm and chatting to some Indian folk.  When the cloud cleared and the sun rose the next morning we realised it was definitely worth the hike – the scenery was stunning.

Our last teaching class was on Friday so we played lots of games, drank chai and ate cake with our students.  It was a lovely last lesson and made all the more special by the fact that one by one our students pulled out Tibetan scarves for us as good luck gifts for the rest of our journey.  It was so unexpected and generous of them and made us feel quite emotional afterwards.  Unfortunately we couldn't justify carrying all 20 scarves around Asia and so have had to post all except 1 each home.

Us and our class...

Quite a lot of our last week in McLeod was spent trying to figure out how to move onto our next destination, and until you've tried to book train travel in India I don't think you quite realise how complicated it can be....we certainly hadn't, and trips to 3 different travel agents as well as numerous hours on the internet didn't make it any easier.   

For starters, the website only tells you direct train journeys, so you have to figure out whether trains actually go to your destination.  Then you have to pick one of up to 6 different types of seats, ranging from 1st class A/C to the general sleeper car.  Once you've figured that out, you then keep all fingers & toes crossed in hope that there are still seats.  Not that that really matters mind, as up to 400+ people book tickets on the 'waiting list' in hope that some people will cancel their bookings.  There's also the 'foreign quota' option but only available from certain stations, and also the 'tatcal' seats which are an extra 30 tickets on some journeys released  48 hours before the trains departure.  I think you need a degree from Oxford to figure it all out.  Today we've tried to book tickets to Varanasi, but it turns out all trains are full until December...     

Eventually we managed to plan our onward journey from McLeod, and 2 scary buses, an overnight train with lots of snoring men, a 3 hour wait, 2 mile walk, 2 rickshaws (holding 13 people each) and 30 hours later we arrived in Rishikesh – famous for its yoga, meditation and general 'new age' hippiness.  Once again our knack for gatecrashing religious festivals didn't fail us and we turned up in Haridwar, 1 hour south, along with hundreds of thousands of Hindus celebrating the birthday of their particular guru.   

The city was covered in yellow and orange, seemingly the colour of their particular sect, and although the crowds were pretty overwhelming it looked beautiful along the banks of the Ganges.  The sheer number of people meant that all onward buses were cancelled and unfortunately we've since heard that 20 people were killed in a stampede that afternoon.

Now further up the river in Rishikesh, things are much calmer yet still exciting with plenty to see and do.  We've found an okay hotel, finally got hot water and even came downstairs to find a cow in the lobby - only in India!  

Tomorrow we begin our Hindi lessons – much needed as we're somewhat embarrassed at only being able to say 'namaste'.  John's hoping he can learn the Hindi for 'I'm allergic to....' or 'no butter/cheese/milk/cream/eggs please' as no matter how much gesturing and explanation you try and give in English, every meal seems to contain at least one of the above.  I've already managed to have a dress made at the local tailors, a bargin at just £4 and needed to counter the depression I've been feeling at not even being able to fit into XL clothes. :-)

Our plan is to stay here until about Saturday although it could be longer if we can't book an onward train.   We're also setting time aside to figure out or destination after India – although we had planned on going to Thailand we're a little concerned after reading about the floods.  Less than 7 weeks till Christmas though (sorry to bring that up!) so we have to get on the case.  Suggestions on a postcard please...