Wednesday, March 31, 2010

flirting with disaster


that's the final count of mosquito bites sustained on my feet and ankles on a 3 hour early morning bus ride (stuffed - and i do mean stuffed - full of locals) from gorakpur, india to the border with nepal - the middle leg of the journey to pokhara, nepal. the first leg was was a 7 hour train ride, and the last leg was an 8 hour bus ride winding through the mountains of nepal during which we had the pleasure of seeing a head-on collison.

guess i should be taking my malaria meds, huh?

Molly Hatchet Flirting With Disaster

Monday, March 29, 2010

you know those geckos the size of crocodiles in my room?

yeah, well about those geckos, two of them dropped from out of the heavens onto z's bare lap!

they looked as stunned and confused as z did.

what the????

and today's adventure is....

... a peak into the inner workings of indian government.

we took a trip to the fro (foreign registration office) in varanasi today to see if we could get some clarification on the newly enacted restrictions on travelling in and out and back into india on a multi-entry visa since we wanted to travel in and out and in and out and...

the office was supposed to open at 10am.

this is what the office looked like at 10am:

so a nice woman who seemed to live on the premises with her entire family motioned to us that we could wait in here:

where it was much cooler. (heatwave still happening)

we headed back into the office around 10:30 and watched a whole lot of newspaper reading by various people at various desks - though the fro desk was still unmanned. and we watched some truly industrious efforts at moving dust from one place to another by a poor little janitor guy being bossed around by everyone.

the fro guy showed at 11:30. we got an answer that was different than every other answer we'd gotten to date and trotted off to flag down a tuk-tuk and come within 4 inches of getting into a head-on collision with a slightly smaller version of a hummer, and then sit in our temporarily abandoned tuk-tuk while our driver and the crazy faux-hummer driver yelled and screamed at each other.

that taken care of, we arrived back to our guesthouse none the worse for wear and booked the first leg of our journey out of india towards nepal.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

varanasi india: yes, we are less dirty

than what?

i was there, i've seen the bathroom, and i'm not sure exactly what or who they are less dirty than. seriously.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

offering my sorrow and joy to mother ganga

i bought a little round paper dish filled with flowers and a little candle, a little offering you release on the ganges (ganga).

i bent down and i offered my sorrow and my joy to mother ganga and let my little boat go.  and then, boink, something bounced off my head. damn kids, can't a gal get a sacred and profound moment to herself?  oh.  right.  sacred and profound, profane, what's the difference?

i went back to my room and within a couple of hours i had my first puke of the night (an oddly sweet puke - as if i'd just eaten ice cream - despite the fact that all i'd been eating for days is spicy indian food) and started working up a fever that would be raging by the next morning.

i slept almost the entire next day.  z tells me that the morning of my sleeping, a monkey came and laid down across from the corner of our room on the balcony occasionally letting out a little moan.  i guess all monkeys are not a-holes.

U2 Sweetest Thing

Friday, March 26, 2010

india: the sacred and mundane and profane

after spending more than a few hours blogging on the computer in varanasi, i asked myself why i was in front of a computer blogging in varanasi instead of being in varanasi. and then i asked myself why i thought blogging in varanasi was not being in varanasi.

india is a microcosm of creation. it shows you that in the midst of what appears to be sacred is also what appears to be the mundane and the profane and vice versa.

the sacred and the mundane. varanasi is filled with holy men and goats. pilgrims and cow poop. universities and poverty. magnificent fire pujas and plain old hunger. and filth and filth.

the sacred and the profane. varanasi is one of the 7 most sacred sites in india. it's believed that if you die here, then your soul is released from the cycle of birth and rebirth. the pious make pilgrimage here and it seems that for each holy man, for each pilgrim, for each prayer, for each puja, for each body cremated in sacred ceremony on the banks of the ganges there is an equal number of charlatans, of con men, of thieves, and of john-travolta-in-saturday-night-fever-esq young boys and men walking around trying to sell you hash or pot or something else that i don't want to know about.

but the thing is, the thing that india quietly and not-so-quietly shows you, is that the whole shebang is sacred. all of it. that if you think that sacred is something all pure and fluffy white and perfect, you'll never find the sacred. you'll just keep looking because that kind of sacred doesn't exist except for in fairy tales. there is nothing in creation that is without it's opposing force. nothing. and so you could say that it's all shit or you could say that it's all sacred. your choice.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

make no mistake, monkeys are a-holes

it's dawn on the ganges and it's beautiful.

i step out of the room onto the balcony and find zeljko already there taking in the view. we sit for awhile and then decide to get some chai so i head back to the room to lock the door and....

monkeys. a whole lotta monkeys.

they are pacing back and forth on the building just feet across from my door.

they are perched above my door

and they are walking along the balcony in front of my door whilst deftly snatching bugs out of mid-air and stuffing them into their mouths one after another.

z thinks he'll just chase them away.

right, chase monkeys away. think again buddy. he raises his voice and shouts something in serbian at them and suddenly he's bumrushed. well, actually nearly bumrushed. at least the first part of bumrushing for sure - being run at at full speed. the nearest bug-plucking monkey runs at him so fast, teeth bared, with a "come on" look in his eye that you wouldn't believe. and that sends z skittering backwards cursing in serbian.

monkey - 1
z - 0

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the size of crocodiles!

seriously, with only a minimum amount of exaggeration, there are geckos the size of freaking crocodiles in my room!

you know the cute little squeaks that those cute little normal sized geckos make? yeah, well those little squeaks become deafening roars (ok, again a little exaggeration) when they come from the jurassic park version ones.

anyway, we couldn't have found a better place to stay (and we know this after spending a lazy day checking out other places). we're staying at ganpati guesthouse on the meer ghat in a big room with a balcony overlooking the ganges.

the room

the bathroom. a real western toilet!

our balcony overlooking meer ghat and the ganges

from our room

the ganges from our balcony

the common area at ganpati

night train, holy roller

we arrive three hours late, safe, to the chaos of the varanasi train station.  no explosions - at least that i know of.  

a car from our guesthouse picks us up, and when there is no more driveable street we get out and walk the remaining 15 minutes.

"i am brahman. i am holy man." says the little sadhu.  he points to a water pot and basket of beautiful bright orange and red flower garlands and says "shiva", annoints us and puts garlands over our heads.

Cat Stevens Peace Train

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

leaving kolkata: planes, trains and automobiles... and fires?

a bomb was just found in the cargo hold of a kingfisher plane - the airline we took to kolkata

we are scheduled to leave kolkata for varansi tonight on a sleeper train.  we wake to news of 4 more bombs detonated, destroying rail tracks.  there were 2 the day before.  the mumbai/howrah mail train is affected, but no mention of the amritsar/howrah mail, the train we are to take.  from what i can gather, sections of rail have been targeted all around the area we are and are heading.

i still say the best thing going is to hire a private driver, but the 15 hours it would take to get from kolkatta to varanasi in a taxi would probably be a tad too expensive.

when we checked into our guesthouse here, saw the wiring, the rickety wooden stairs, and the locked bars on our windows, "firetrap" was the first word that came to my mind. as we are enjoying a last beer at the fairlawn before heading to the train station "firetrap" became a reality for a whole bunch of people just around the corner from my guesthouse.

my guesthouse, with spotlessly clean rooms inside despite what you see next.

the still-working elevator. they think the fire in the building around the corner from me was started by faulty wiring in the elevator. imagine that.

need i say more?

and did i mention the heatwave? yeah, 10 degrees centigrade hotter than normal this time of year.

picked up a chewer in kolkata

so we're walking back to our place after visiting the fairlawn, a lovely but crumbling leftover from the colonial period hidden in the midst of the kolkata ghetto where we are staying, when we pick up a chewer.

i'm pretty sure that under the filth and despite the short hair, man's pants and jacket, it is a woman. her eyes do not look crazy, but... she jumps. she runs in front of us and jumps as far ahead as she can then turns back to look if we have seen. we have, and i smile. and then again. she hangs back and then trots along next to us.

she puts her fingers in her mouth and whistles the loudest whistle i have ever heard and looks to see if we noticed. i tell her that it is the loudest whistle i have ever heard, which of course prompts her to whistle over and over again.

we stop to buy water and she hides behind a counter at a nearby shack while we do, then runs up and jumps and whistles behind us.

she follows us for blocks. jumping and whistling and jumping.

z said i should never talk to the crazy people, but  i thought it was kind of cute.  plus she didn't kill us or anything.

Monday, March 22, 2010

i got the ganges in my veins

i mean, literally...

so yesterday at kalighat when i plunged my hands into the ganges and splashed water on my forehead and neck in the blazing heat, i forgot that i had not one, but two slightly open oozing bites on the back of my hand from some unidentified-but-clearly-not-a-mosquito kind of bug.

whooops, mother ganga has entered the building.

it doesn't look infected...

our little kolkata coffee joint

we get up each morning and have coffee here, thanks to a tip from our taxi driver.

oh isn't this the best coffee you've had ever?

mmmm, why yes it is.

hey, can you see what he's making it with?

looks like nescafe.

yeah, well, ok, it may be nescafe, but it's nescafe mixed with boiling sweetened condensed milk...

coffee and chai are served in "disposable" clay cups

smashing the cups on the ground after finishing the coffee is my favorite part.
the cups are surprisingly not fragile.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

kolkata? you're going to kolkata first? or
why are you going to kolkata of all places?

why not go to kolkata? afterall, it is called the city of joy.

day 1: kolkatta is huge. we hire the taxi driver who shuttled us from the train station to our guesthouse last night to drive us around all day.  we see the finance district, the corporate district, the industrial district, the back alleys, kalighat, the ramakrishna museum and belur math (no photos allowed, none taken), the botanical gardens, and more.  it (the city), he (the driver), and they (the sights) are wonderful. 

a teeny part of the largest banyan tree in the world in the kolkata botancial garden

a bit of this and that floating in a pond at the botanical garden

india! i'm really going to india! right now!

hanging out in the huge, clean, nearly empty hanoi airport waiting for our kingfisher airlines flight to kolkata (calcutta)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

sweeping generalizations and random observations

from my own personal experience
  • laos had a bit of a polynesian vibe to me.  the street vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, tour salespeople would casually, in almost a whisper, say "tour?" "tuk-tuk?" as you walked by.  no fuss, no muss, no chasing you down the street. no hassle.  
  • cambodia was a bit more busy-ish and was certainly more harsh in terms of vendors - the street kids being the most tenacious.  hordes of them all hawking the same postcards and xeroxed copies of books for some big boss behind the scenes.  grabbing your arm, following you down the street.  it finally got to the point that i really just didn't want to go outside anymore.  i gave a bottle of water to a teeny dirty kid who wanted the pat of butter on our table.  sigh.
  • vietnam seemed the most industrious of them.  despite all the warnings that it would be the worst in terms of vendors harassing you, with the exception of the evil night banana lady, it was not.  z and i agree that we liked the vibe in vietnam the best in general. (however we have heard stories from fellow travellers in the vietnam that are not so nice and rosy...)
  • z and i share the same favorite places so far: angkor wat in cambodia and ha long bay in vietnam.
  • when you really want to see a place, do the local stuff on foot and then hire a private driver for the rest.  it's cheap to hire a taxi for the whole day, you see a ton of stuff, and if your driver is good, you see things you'd never see otherwise, meet people you'd never meet otherwise, and get an insider's twist on it all.   

re: the human zoo

here's the thing, i am ashamed enough of the photo-taking for all of us.

western tourists snapping, snapping, snapping photos of laotians, cambodians, vietnamese... snapping, snapping, snapping as if these fellow human beings were animals in a zoo.

yes, the heavily-lined faces are beautiful, tell a story. yes, the dirt-caked children are heart-wrenching. but jesus people, how would you feel if people passed by you at your office desk, your front door, while you were bathing, raking leaves, tending your garden, going to the market, your mother's funeral... snapping, snapping, snapping.

lame. and as beautiful and heart-wrenching as some of the photo-ops are, these are peoples' real lives and i opt out.

that being said, i did pass the camera over to zeljko, but asked him that if he felt he must take a photo of people, to please be discreet.  now he'll face the same decision i did.

Friday, March 19, 2010

so here's the deal

i thought it would be a good idea on this latest foray into the larger world to shed the technology that i'd burdened myself with for so long, so i dumped my cellphone and left my laptop in bosnia. 

i'm still carrying the camera but i'm tiring of using it.

anyway, the thing is that it makes it a lot harder to deal with digital pictures, blogging (and certainly composing anything more weighty than a blog blurb), and keeping the people who want to be in the know in the know.

so what i'm trying to say is that my blog updates for the last however long it's been are going to have wait a little longer despite my earlier post suggesting otherwise.  skype is right out.  no phone calls from me in the near future.

i'm flying to calcutta, india this morning and who knows what goes from there.  we'll see how it unfolds.


i've got a golden ticket!

it's official, we've got our indian visas!!!!

immediately upon arriving in hanoi last week, we dropped by the indian embassy and applied for visas.  (i will not discuss the difficulty and black market money-changer rip-off required to acquire US dollars - which they require as payment for said indian visa.)

5 business days later, as promised, the visas are ours!

whoo hooooo!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2 completely random photos from hanoi, vietnam

hoan kiem lake at night (obviously) in the middle of old hanoi.

view over old hanoi from our first guesthouse

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

beware the evil late night banana ladies of hanoi

on our way home from dinner with 3 couchsurfers from 3 different countries all working and living in hanoi, we were ambushed by an evil late night banana lady.

i was just innocently walking by when bam! she threw the banana thing over my shoulder and the hat on my head and then pantomimed taking a photo.

this meant only one thing, we were in for 1) an argument, 2) giving away some money, or 3) both.

so z took the photo and then she tried to bag up the last of her bananas and shove them at us whilst asking for 5 US dollars.

i didn't feel like getting chased down the street with her bitching at me - which was the only possible outcome if i told her to get lost - so i gave her a hard look, ripped a few bananas off the bunch, shoved 1 US dollar at her (which was still too much) and walked away when she feebly began to protest that 1 dollar wasn't enough.

pure evil.

Monday, March 15, 2010

halong bay vietnam: halong? not long enough!

yeah, yeah, yeah, it's the tourist thing to do, but there's a reason for that, and it's all summed up in the photo below.

please, is this not incredible?

our boat, the marguerite. 2-ish days and 1 night is not enough. i would have liked another full day just to hang out on the deck of the boat and take in the scenery - a sentiment echoed by everyone on the boat as they tried to pry us off at the end of journey.

the food was great and plentiful. the boat only had 12 rooms and they were spacious with tvs, dvd players, refrigerators, and real live toilets, sinks and showers instead of boat bathrooms.

and making it even better, we ended up hanging out with matthias and stella, a couple who run a teddy bear shop, and who, as annual travellers to india for years, gave us loads of good info.

the usual stuff

and the prerequisite floating village

Saturday, March 13, 2010

hello hanoi

i like you.

we're staying in old town where the streets remain much the same as they were when they were built, filled with long, tall, skinny shophouses where families work all day and then retire to the living space in the back in the evenings.

the sidewalks in front of the shophouses are filled with either 1) moped and motorcycle parking (often replete with attendants who shuffle the bikes around as people come and go, 2) bia hoi (fresh beer, cheap) stands where people sit around on footstools and chat and drink, 3) products spilling over from the shop behind it, or 4) people cooking something or another over semi-open fires.

Friday, March 12, 2010

hue to hanoi and the sleeper bus from hell

they have the nerve to call it a "sleeper bus." a sleeper bus!

never again.

having booked late, we found ourselves in the shoulder-to-shoulder, no-room-in-between-not-even-an-armrest (hope you don't mind rubbing body parts with a few stinky strangers in the 90 degree heat as you all toss and turn trying to avoid bone bruises in the torture devices that they call lay-down seats), 5 across lower bunk in the very back directly on top of the engine and then we spend the next 12 hours hurtling down the road in the dark stacked 2 high and 5 across. a giant coffin. a speeding death trap.

but oddly enough, we survived.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

hue vietnam: khai dinh mausoleum

saw some stuff around hue including emperor khai dinh's mausoleum. even z, sick of seeing temples, pagodas and ruins, loved this one.