Saturday, October 13, 2007

India Day 6: McLeod Ganj (OJG)

McLeod Ganj being the first place where we would spend some serious time, we were able to take things a little easier. I woke up pretty early, and decided to have a look at the twilight lit town. I was amazed to see monkeys frolicking on the roof tops, and sweet little birds chirping on my balcony. I carefully yet swiftly moved back inside to grab the camera. When I came out... well even the tumble weed had disappeared! After 10 minutes, one monkey made a quick appearance, I guess that would have to do.

The hotel manager who is a good friend of John's let us change rooms from one that had WiFi to one that had WiFi and a View! So first thing in the morning I moved all our stuff from one room to the other. I say 'I' and not 'we', as Em had been up sporadically during the night with her bad tum, and was still feeling sick. No more Tibetan soup for her! (Mine was absolutely delicious!).

Having done the room change I went to meet John at Kunga's outdoor restaurant, something we would do every morning. The reason? The view is just spectacular. On this morning we were especially lucky as we not only had the top table, but there was a group of Tibetan kids doing their morning chants and exercises at a nearby school rooftop. The view, the children chanting, words really cannot describe how special it was.

After breakfast, John and I headed into the main town street, to get some chores done. It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point, a few of the givens when going into any busy street in India.

First of all there are a fair number of beggars. Some are kids, some are women with their babies, some are men or women who are badly disfigured. About half of them will call out from the side of the street, whilst the other half will actually come up to you and keep touching you until you give them something. I will just say that I do not think there are any Tibetan beggars, and that most of the ones in Mcleod actually come up every day from Dharamsala. Why do they come up every day? Well as you may or may not have guessed, an awful lot of westerners come to Mcleod, and hence I guess it would be classed as rich pickings. More on that another time.

Another given in the streets, is spitting to clear the throat. There is an awful lot of it, and sometimes it can be really vocal and loud. You can accept the locals doing it, but when westerners start to pick up the habit, well I personally find it quite offensive. I am pretty sure I have not seen any women do it, which is a start!

Last and by no means least, you will definitely see a lot of animals in any given street. A lot of cows and dogs to be specific. The dogs are nearly all strays, and generally speaking they keep themselves to themselves. Although nobody seems to go out of their way to harm or harass them, if they do become a problem, little mercy is shown when moving them on. At night you can often see dozens of them curled up on steps and door entrances. Cows get the opposite treatment. As most of you will know, Cows are sacred in India and as such cannot be harmed. They even have right of way, which can be a real problem when one decides to sit down in the middle of a narrow road. Luckily for both the driver and the cow, a few pushes on the horn and the cow usually moves on, at his own pace of course.

So, during our walk into the main street, we were greeted by a small kid who wanted something. His English wasn't too bad, and after a bit of dialogue it emerged that he did not specifically want money, but some powdered milk. Well how can you refuse a kid some milk? I promptly when to a shop with him, and bought him a bag. Upon my emergence, a couple of other beggars had noticed the 'weak target' and started to swarm around me. I managed to lose them by going into a shop for a while, but it made me unfortunately rethink my previous action. The solution? I don't know.

Much later in the day, John took me to his local barber. A tiny shop with 3 chairs and 3 hairdressers. They are always busy, and I have yet to see more than 1 chair be empty at any time. I sat down and the man got to work. As I was sitting there watching him work on my hair, I couldn't help but think of Edward Scissorhands, he was that quick. After 5 minutes, he was nearly done, and he asked if I wanted a shave as well? Why not. 10 minutes later, and my hair was cut, my face shaven twice (with a proper shaving blade I'll have you know), I had had a quick shoulder massage, drunk a cup of chai, and there was a new customer in the chair waiting. Amazing. And all that for 100 rupees, about £1.25.

Friday, October 12, 2007

India Day 5: Mandi - McLeod Ganj

After a relaxing breakfast in the alfresco restaurant at the Raj Mahal, where we stayed last night, we took a car (with driver) for the 4 hour drive up to McLeod Ganj.

The roads, peppered with people, monkeys, cows, other drivers and the occasional Sadhu, were very steep and narrow, winding their way tightly up and down the mountains. Even just being a passenger is exhausting as you hold on for dear life and once you have conquered one mountain there are plenty more in between you and your destination.

As we arrived in McLeod just a few hundred yards from our hotel the taxi acquired a flat tyre. Luckily there were more than enough willing people to carry our bags for 50 rupees which we gratefully accepted. We then settled into our room at the Green Hotel before heading out for a quick buzz around the town to get a feel for where we were.

McLeod Ganj is about 4 miles from Dharamsala in northern India. It is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. He was forced to flee to McLeod in 1959, 10 years after the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama is currently in America where he is to be awarded The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on Wednesday (much to the annoyance of the Chinese government). So once Miss Tibet is out of the way the town will be buzzing with even more celebrations.

We decided to try some traditional Tibetan food for dinner. Oly and I had noodle soup. There are two types of noodle soup, one, Gya-thuk, is a flat, short noodle and the other, Thukpa, is long chow mien like. Oly had the former and I had the latter. In retrospect I really wish I had his, mine smelt and tasted like the drains here and I don't think I am very well...


India Day 5 Update: Scenery

John had a look at our blog this morning, and remarked that there was very little mention of the scenery we have passed thus far on our travels. And to a degree, he is right. I guess Em and I have been so overwhelmed with the social aspects of India, we have neglected to include more of the natural aspects in the blog.

So here are a few pictures to show you some of the trully special and breathtaking countryside that we have travelled through so far.... and keep John quiet :)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

India Day 4: Shimla - Mandi (OJG)

Day 4 started with a quick wander into town before we left for Mandi. We found the opticians and both Em and I bought a pair of RayBans. Although cheap at about 40 quid each, it meant we needed to exchange some more money. We found a bank that was open, but for some peculiar reason they would not do any money exchange until 10:30. In the end we just used an ATM.

As we were leaving the hotel, the manager quickly shouted out to me asking for the key. I had nearly managed to leave the hotel and the city with the key still in my pocket, a feat that I succeeded in accomplishing the following day! A kleptomaniac in the making? I really hope not!

John organised a taxi, and we all hopped in. The drive to Mandi was a lot longer than our previous drive to Shimla, about four and a half hours. During that time we overtook countless vehicles and trucks, saw loads of animals ambling around the road, and speeded through many villages and towns.

To give an example of driving in India, and probably Taxi driving in particular, it is hectic! It is quite common for the taxi to overtake a large bus, whilst that bus is overtaking a truck, and this on a bendy road with a blind spot about 60m ahead. Oh and sure, everyone has their horns blowing continuously to warn any oncoming traffic that they are there, but that does not always work!

On this drive we really did have 2 lucky escapes. I know they were lucky because the driver slowed down afterwards, albeit for a couple of minutes only. The worst was when he tried to overtake a man pushing his wheeled market stall on a 120 degree bend (cannot see anything past the bend), while a bus was overtaking a car on the other side of the bend towards us. It was seriously close.

We drove through the industrial town of Sundar Nagar, from afar it looks like some sort of factory behemoth shimmering in the haze, with a tiny town at its base. The result of this, was a ten-fold increase in trucks on the road. All the trucks in India are basically the same, and nearly all are made by Tata, a mega corporation that does everything from tea to mobile contracts, from cars to satellite broadcasting, from china plates to home loans. Of course there are bigger companies in the world, but I don't believe any of them have quite the diversity of products that Tata supplies.

So, getting back to the colourful trucks. Although we saw a lot of trucks on the road, we saw a lot more on the side of the road waiting for the night to arrive. They prefer to drive at night as there are less cars on the road. Allegedly they can travel in closely knit convoys of up to 100. And with all this night time activity comes a complete night time sub-culture of eateries, mechanics and of course prostitutes. Truck drivers have the second largest amount of aids cases in India, the prostitutes being the first. Unfortunately, education on these matters is very poor and the number of HIV cases in India is expected to reach 12 million by 2010.

We finally arrived at Mandi in the late afternoon, and headed for our hotel the Raj Mahal (not to be confused with the Taj Mahal). We had a pleasant late lunch in the garden restaurant and afterwards we went for a walk around Mandi's famous two storey sunken market, called Indira market. In the evening Emelie felt tired and went to bed, whilst John and I went to the hotel bar and discussed mostly Indian politics (a common Indian pastime) whilst consuming beer and poppadoms. It felt quite colonial.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

India Day 3: Shimla

The last two days we have woken up at 2AM. This gave us plenty of time this morning to contemplate our new means of bathing using a bucket and a jug. We thought that by helping each other to wash it would be easier. It actually took longer and, as the night had been very cold, it was freezing. We won't be doing that again!

The main area of Shimla is The Mall and it is pedestrianised. The easiest access to it from down the hill is via two passenger lifts that you can get for 7 rupees. The only other way up is a very steep climb. We did this once and I am ashamed to say I barely stayed ahead of the men who were carrying a good 50kgs of market produce on their backs and heads.

After our hike up the hill we stopped for a breather at the Indian Coffee House where people (mostly men) go to chat and more than likely put the world to rights. The place was dark, dark brown wood and dark brown leather, the waiters were dressed in uniforms that reminded us of ex British Empire uniforms with cumberbunds... Drinking coffee is a secondary thing, which is lucky really because it has to be amongst the worse coffee I have ever tasted!

In the afternoon we visited the Tibetan Children's School that John helped organise the build of. We have asked John to write a blog entry on this which we look forward to posting.

We had lunch at Johns friends home who live on The Mall. This means we have been lucky enough to have real home cooked Indian food, which as I am sure you can guess is so much better than anything you can buy in a restaurant. The food and the company were superb. Desert was gulab jamon which is John's favorite.

Gulab jamons are fried balls of dough made from flour and milk served with sugar syrup flavoured with rosewater, saffron, or cardamon. Later that evening we went a-hunting for some more as Oly had a taste for them and John wasn't about to say no! I think they ate 4 each... thats some going because they are pretty substantial in a sweet way.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

India Day 2: Delhi - Shimla (OJG)

Today we woke up nice and early to catch the 7:40 train to Kalka. Our hotel was fairly close to the New Delhi Train Station, and as such no auto-rickshaws wanted our pitiful fares. Instead, we climbed aboard a couple of cycle-rickshaws. Fortunately, rush hour had not yet kicked in, and the traffic was not too hectic, close calls were still in healthy supply however.

At the station we got aboard our reserved Chair Class seats and headed north out of the city. The service on the train was very impressive, especially considering this was not even first class. A carriage porter handed out the following items for each passenger over the course of the journey: Newspapers; Water Bottle and Cup; Small Tray with Biscuits and Tea Making Kit; Personal Flask with hot Water; Vegetarian or Non Vegetarian (egg) hot meals; more Tea Making Kits; more Personal Flasks with hot Water; more Water Bottles.

It was more akin to being on a plane than a train. Of course, things being the way they are, a military man with a machine gun also came through the carriage checking all the baggage had owners, and a sniffer dog made sure there was nothing untoward in them.

The views from the train window were very interesting. In Delhi, we saw an awful lot of buildings at all stages of disrepair. We also saw several slums. As we left Delhi, the scenery got more green and luscious. Along the journey we passed through towns of various size. But even going through the countryside, I don't think there was a single moment when we did not see at least one person visible from the window. Often a lot more.

The funniest part of the train journey had to be my discovery of the Emergency Flush Button in the toilets. Why one would need to emergency flush is a topic that kept us amused for quite a while. Of course, like most things to do with plumbing in India, it did not work, so it is just as well that specific emergency did not arise!

From Kalka, we took a taxi up to Shimla, which is also spelt Simla. The taxi journey, our first of many, was quite hard work, but I will go more into that scenario on my next blog entry. Suffice to say at the moment, that the journey had a mix of windy roads, dogs, trucks, buses, roaming cows, steep hills, monkeys, people in the street, and ... did I mention roaming cows?! More on that in two days.

Shimla is a large town that sits on the side of a mountain at 2,100m. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the lower part of Shimla, and we had to take two public lifts up, one after another, to get to the main area. To give another peculiarity of Shimla, the street junctions are not a case of right or left, but instead up or down. Regardless of all that, the town is very pretty and from afar could easily be mistaken for a Swiss village in the alps. Minus the yodeling of course.

Monday, October 08, 2007

India Day 1: Delhi

Beds in India are considerably shorter than those you would find in the western world, plus they can have a wooden footboard that is flush with the mattress which, during the night, if you venture onto it, can be rather uncomfortable. Nontheless, we did sleep rather well and felt very refreshed when we met John on the balcony of the Hotel Relax for breakfast.

Our first priority of the day was to get Indian mobile numbers (if you need our numbers just drop us an email or message on here). A rather long form, photocopies of passports and photographs later we were proud owners of two India sim cards.

In the safe hands of Baba, who has been driving John in India for many years, we set off for the Mahatma Gandhi Raj Ghat.

The Raj Ghat is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi which marks the place of his cremation. It is a modest black marble platform with an eternal flame burning at one end. The memorial is set in a beautiful park where many people take time to reflect.

Our next visit was to the Indian Baha'i Temple, the design was inspired by a lotus flower giving the temple its commonly known name, The Lotus Temple.

The Temple has 27 free-standing "petals" clad in marble, they are grouped in threes giving nine sides with doorways into the central hall which holds 2,500 people. It is said that this building is one of the most visited buildings in the world and its yearly visitors surpass the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal.

It is breathtaking.

The queue, when we arrived, was considerable. However, due to excellent organisation and respectful visitors, it moved very quickly. Once inside there was time to sit down and be enveloped by the peace and calm. It truly was a special place.

I must say, I was very surprised that India in all its bright, shiny, multicoloured, busy, gold plated glory had produced these two beautiful, simple places. India would not be India without the former, but it is nice to take time out with the latter. Even on day one...

To end our fabulous first day we met Kenneth, a colleague of John's, for dinner at Tadka, which can be found in the Nehru Bazar opposite the Hotel Relax. Dinner was a mixture of vegetarian dishes based on recommendation and pot luck, and what luck we had, I can safely say it was one of the best India meals I have ever had. However, we really need to brush up on our Indian so we know our pakora from our paratha.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

India Day 0: London - Hong Kong - Perth - Singapore - New Delhi (OJG)

Well, we are back with a new adventure, this time in India! Our flight to India was a bit of a crazy one as some of you already know. In short, we flew to India via Australia. On the plus side, this allowed us to drop off our UK bags and pick up our India ones. On the negative side, it meant that we would have 4 separate flights and be in the air for 30 hours over a 3 day period.

As luck would have it, we got pretty lucky on our first flight from London to Hong Kong. Due to overbooking, and some sweet talking by Emelie, we got upgraded to Traveller Plus, and boy did we appreciate it. In Hong Kong we had a 5 hour wait until the next flight, so we decided to make the most of it and go visit the city. The cavernous new airport has a direct train which takes 23 minutes to the center. Unfortunately it was night time, so we weren't able to do any tours, instead we wondered around the streets and the many walkways that lie above them.

For those of you that have not been, Hong Kong is a strange city, it is home to many of the world's tallest skyscrapers, and yet at their base lie a multitude of narrow streets and alleyways where people in stalls try and sell various goods to the hustle and bustle of moving people around them. This included hot food, clothing, watches, phones, and most notably, an awful lot of official rubber stamps! Above these narrow streets are more neon signs than you can shake a fluorescent tube at. If I had to give an example of what the whole atmosphere was like, there is one that fits the bill perfectly. The street scenes from Blade Runner. Almost an exact match. Well, bar the zeppelins with huge video screens on the side, but I am sure that is just a matter of time!

10 hours later we arrived in Perth. Immigration and Customs in Perth was as usual a pain. It did not help that half of our flight had non English speaking Chinese, and that the immigration desks were under staffed. Customs were just as bad, as more or less every single case got either x-rayed or searched. After an hour, we got through to find Sam, Emelie's sister, waiting for us with a big happy smile. A very nice welcome back home.

We spent the next 32 hours unpacking cases, opening storage boxes, paying bills, getting insurance, re-packing cases, and then returning to the airport for our next flight to Singapore. For the 2nd leg of journey, from Singapore to New Delhi, we flew Jet Air which I could not recommend highly enough. The plane was not exactly new, but the service was impeccable, and the meal amazingly tasty. We even got a Galaxy ice cream for desert!

When we arrived in New Delhi, it was 2 in the morning and pretty hot. Immigration took all of 5 minutes. Unlike Australia with it's 6 officers and complex computer system, India just throws 18 officers with biros at the problem, and they were very fast indeed. The same cannot be said for the baggage pickup, which for us took at least 45 minutes. This was particularly irritating as bags were trickling through, just at a very slow rate. One can only wonder as to the reasons why.

Once we had our bags we went through where John was waiting for us. For those of you who do not know, John has been coming to India at least once a year for the past 20 years, has been involved in numerous charity projects in India, and has taken it upon himself to be our guide for our whole journey here (he'll learn!). He is also my godfather and a close friend.

The drive from the airport to the Hotel Relax was fairly uneventful, as the streets were by and large quiet. Of note however was the large number of open road blocks all manned by at least 1 policeman, the several near misses with over vehicles and people, and finally the drivers complete disregard for red lights and traffic signs. Welcome to India!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Anything your PC can do my Mac can do better...

I have finally come over to the Mac side and have been offline for a while with the change plus internet access has been sparodic, especially in the US.

Also, I have only just managed to get access to my address book and old emails (really sorry to all those that have emailed me and I haven't replied) but I am getting back on track and will be in the present and not sifting through the past sooner than you can say "Steve Jobs".


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Where on Earth are we?

Right now we are in London, UK. We decided to bring our Christmas trip forward to fill in the gap between making our way back to Perth and our upcoming India adventure.

We nearly didn't make it here, we missed our flight PER-SYD which meant by default we would miss our SYD-LHR flight. So we spent the following 24 hours hoping BA weren't going to be complete ***holes and allow us to travel the following day. Whenever we spoke to them they just kept on repeating "the Terms & Conditions of your booking", it was infuriating, they wouldn't even allow us to join the flight when it stopped at Singapore.

Anyway, we are here now.

We have had some fun weeks here, I spent my birthday in Geneva as a guest of Oly's mum who recently has moved there from Koh Samui. For some reason we did not take any photos, we will have to go again one day.

We have spent a lot of time with our family and friends here, which is what it is all about. Sadly this time we did not manage to get up to Liverpool.

I have just got back from 10 days in Palm Springs/Las Vegas with my friend James. We had a fabulous time and were well looked after by a Frank, a friend who we were introduced to through Oly's grandmother.

England is England, it's starting to rain here now so we know it's time to go back to Australia.

We fly back on Wednesday arriving on the 5th of Oct which gives us around 30 hours to unpack and repack for India as our flight is on the 6th. Crazy fools I know! India should be our last trip for a while, reality beckons.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Did somebody say DUCK?

This is what happens when you drive under a carport with a roof tent on the top of your car.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Day 166: Kalbarri - Perth

I left my pillow in our motel room and didn't realise until we were 60km out of Kalbarri. After much umming and ahhing we turned back. I must really love that pillow to do another 120km for it.

We have driven straight through to Perth from Kalbarri and have booked into a motel for the night. Now we just have to figure out what we do next. Time to sleep on it!


Friday, July 13, 2007

Day 165: Coral Bay - Kalbarri

Kalbarri is gorgeous, Lovely clear blue sea and white sandy beaches. It helped that it was gloriously sunny too.

We are too close to the end of our trip now to feel relaxed and really enjoy our surroundings. All we want to do now is get back to Perth.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Day 164: Exmouth - Coral Bay

We were picked up in a rickety old mini van at 7:30AM by Ningaloo Reef Dreaming and spent the next 30 minutes driving to the beach where we got a dinghy to the boat.

After our "how to snorkel with a whale shark" briefing we were dropped into the ocean for 10 minutes to make sure we were confident in the open water. Lunch was served and then, for the next 4 1/2 hours, we sat waiting for the spotter plane to find a whale shark. The roof of the boat leaked and what limited seating they had was not fixed to the floor so it slid dangerously as we bobbed around in the choppy sea. It was not an enjoyable experience.

To off top our day their van broke down and had to get a landcruiser to push start it.

No one can guarantee a whale shark spotting, however Ningaloo Reef Dreaming could have been more organised with keeping us occupied while we waited.

After being dropped off back out our car we snuck into the caravan park and had a shower before heading down to Coral Bay.

Still raining. We checked into a backpackers hostel, first time for us. Oly was excited at the bunk beds of our double room and bagsied the top. Of course it was party night all night for the other residents and I was glad of my earplugs.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Day 163: Fortescue River - Exmouth

Arrived in Exmouth and managed to get a space in the over flow of the caravan park for one night, the place was heaving, every nook and cranny had a caravan or tent squeezed in.

We have booked to "swim with the whale sharks" tomorrow so yet another early to bed early to rise.