South India: Part 1

Busy streets of Mysore

Busy streets of Mysore

India has many types of travelers, some of which we’ve already talked about. There are the backpackers, the soul-searchers, the yogis, the beach vacationers, and then there are the travelers who want to see India, but comfortably. Admittedly I’m making grand generalizations, but we found ourselves running into these “more comfortable” travelers more in the south than any other part of India.

Our first stop in the south was Mysore, famously known as the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga, though we didn’t see any yogis…or any westerners for that matter. We arrived in the city intending it to be a quick one night stopover en route to more interesting places, based on the less than favorable reviews of the city by some travelers we met in Hampi. Mysore is logistically the best stopover for people heading south to the state of Kerala, or on their way north to Hampi. Overwhelmed with being back in big city for the first time since Delhi, and dehydrated and tired from the previous day’s excursion and train ride, Mysore seemed like nothing special at first glance.

Thousands of sticks of incense drying in the sun

Thousands of sticks of incense drying in the sun

Ian went in search of lunch (I accompanied him but I was too focused on rehydration to eat) and found a local thali shop where we were sat at a table, a banana leaf placed in front Ian and then heaped full of rice, daal, curries and curd…and replenished again and again. This was easily the most authentic Indian restaurant we had walked into, with Indians curiously staring to see whether Ian was able to handle the spice of the food. When Ian gulped down some water, blew his nose and just said “spicy” to the Indians eating across from us, they let out a loud laugh and seeing their smiles made us feel a sliver of excitement for the people and vibe of this so called “horrible” city.

The authenticity of the thali restaurant served as a beautiful microcosm for the rest of Mysore. After lunch we walked around and were amazed at how few Indians talked to us, solicited us or offered us this that or the other. Instead, for the first time in India, we were able to watch true Indian life revolve around us. It was surreal in many ways to finally feel like a fly on the wall and be able to watch the Indians deal with the hustle and bustle just as we do in Boston, New York or any other major city in the United States.

Our driver and his brand new tuk-tuk

Our driver and his brand new tuk-tuk

We bumped into a tuk-tuk driver that Ian had been talking to earlier in the day and offered to take us around the city for the “Indian price”, as he called it, of 20 rupees (about .30 cents). We couldn’t turn it down so we hopped in. He sped through traffic in his new tuk-tuk his mother had just bought it for him, blasting his favorite songs and honking his clown horn (it was actually a horn that clowns would use to startle you) while explaining to us the various bazaars and how, within Mysore, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all co-exist together. It was astounding to see a Christian church while in the background you hear a mosque doing their ‘call to prayer’, with Hindu temples popping up at various corners of the city. In many ways, this sort of religious acceptance into society is something we don’t feel we have actually seen so openly even in our own country. The excitement and sense of pride that our tuk-tuk driver had about Mysore was infectious and we felt excited knowing that, despite this place’s criticism amongst other travelers, it actually is quite an amazing place if you pay close enough attention.

Though Mysore certainly had more to offer we had already bought our bus tickets to continue along the road. And so in the early hours of the morning, before the sun had even started to think about rising, we arrived in Cochin and stepped off the bus into a wall of humidity. I’m talking, cut it with a knife, feel like you’re swimming, humidity. Since it was still too early for the city buses to run we took a tuk-tuk to Cochin Fort, where most of the travelers stay, where we had to wait the few hours until check-out time when we would then be able to check-in to a room. We mostly spent those hours in the plastic chairs trying to sit very still, hoping to fool the hundreds of mosquitoes into thinking we were statues, and alternating between sticking and sliding in our own sweat. THEN the sun came up and we began to melt in earnest.

Nevertheless, we decided to explore the area that everyone had been talking so highly of. Kerala is one of the wealthiest states in India, supposedly very clean (although their beach was depressingly covered in trash), and with an outstanding education system—almost everywhere you look kids are walking around in their school uniform. It also displays the architecture and culture left behind by the many colonizing nations. It’s because of these cute colonial towns and more western atmosphere that we found ourselves among the “comfortable travelers,” mainly European families and middle-age tour groups. The difficulty with being among these tourists is that the prices for accommodation and food skyrocket, even though the rooms are basic and the street food they’re overcharging for is bland.

We rented bikes and tried to explore the other parts of the fort but only managed to find streets clogged with tourist and shops selling Ali-baba pants and “India” t-shirts. The whole scene wasn’t really our style; it felt so far removed from the India we had been experiencing. Just when we were starting to enjoy the hard earned breeze and the not so glitzy, more functional old colonial parts of town, my bike tire exploded and once again we found ourselves resembling a Dali painting. A friendly tuk-tuk driver stopped to help us, but realizing his tuk-tuk was too small, called a friend to take us and our bikes back to the guesthouse. All the while a toddler made faces at me through a window and disappeared behind the curtain in fits of laughter when I responded in kind. The interesting thing about India is that for as little money as people make they are not greedy and hoard it to themselves, instead offering to call their friend with the bigger tuk-tuk or their uncle with the nicer guest house when they don’t have what you’re looking for.  But that generosity has its limits and does not extend to foreigners, and while they are always very friendly, and eager to help you in whatever way they can, they are also looking to benefit from it. So while the two tuk-tuk drivers were more than accommodating playing tetris with our two bikes trying to fit them in the small cart, they also charged us pretty penny which I’m sure they would split equally later.

Cochin by night was what really enchanted Ian and me. A local arts theater provided nightly performances in traditional Indian song, dance and music. The first night we went for the dancing, performed solo to honor different Hindu gods. Each dance was executed in a series of stomps, emphasized by the cuffs of bells worn around each ankle, twirls, hops and dips, with exact hand and eye movements, and a smile. It was only when a novice dancer performed that it became clear just how much effort goes in to each twist of the hand or bend at the knee. We returned a second night for sitar and tabla drums and sat for an hour totally enrapt in the undulating sounds of the tabla and exotic whine of the sitar, that when combined added an air of sensuality to the hot Indian night. The second night had even fewer audience members, adding to the intimacy of the music.

Our final day we went on a day tour of the Backwaters, a network of rivers and canals that disappear into the lush overgrowth leading to more isolated villages. We spent the morning on a smaller boat that can be polled along the smaller canals, hopping off to visit a coconut farm, and take a walk through spice trees offering pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and bay and curry leaf. We made a somewhat comical acquaintance of a middle-aged American woman from Wisconsin, visiting Cochin as an official judge of a dog show. And my god was she American. I found her fascinating in that she is part of that American statistic who would not venture outside the country, but because of her work in these dog shows (of all things!) is actually rivaling my passport. And while she complained about the heat, the skinny looking dogs, and the spicy and altogether too flavorful food, I commended her for venturing outside her comfortable hotel and safe schedule to take advantage of some of the attractions of India. After lunch and pictures with the locals (in this case two women who approached me shyly asking for a quick picture because of my pale skin and blonde hair) we transferred to the larger traditional covered boat and with the enormous effort of the one man with a large pole, cruised down the main canal.

We felt proud of ourselves for finding the backpacker way around Cochin while still taking advantage of the culture and all it has to offer. That said, we were ready to move on.

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Hampi

Resting in the rice paddies

Resting in the rice paddies

As we stood among the backpackers, waiting for the already late bus, we befriended Hans, a Norwegian, who had quit his desk job (sighting exhaustion, boredom, and physical injury, “I didn’t sit and type in the proper form,” as if typing is a sport that requires bodily precision to avoid hurting yourself) and was making his way around the world. He was drinking a few beers to help lull him to sleep once on the bus, and chatting to anyone standing near him. His friendly and unguarded character made it easy to strike up conversation. We learned that this was Hans’ second trip to India, the first being 18 years earlier, and his excitement at revisiting some of the same places he had been was infectious. He told us, during his first visit, he and his friends had liked Hampi so much they had returned for a second visit; this would be his third. Already excited by the general hype surrounding Hampi we arrived to find it was exactly the backpacker haven we had been missing. Cultural, scenic, and relaxed, it was easy to hang out and meet other travelers and share stories.

It feels like all throughout the country Indians are struggling to keep up with the rapid modernization and growing economy. Not bothering to even remove the rubble of the building they’ve just ripped down to make space, we constantly see new construction going up, and buildings squeezed between two existing structures. The strain on the electrical grid is evident in the frequent power outages, and the switch from bicycles to motorbikes noticeable in the smog hanging over the cities and the constant traffic jams. Hampi, had both ordered the demolition of a local bazaar in order to preserve the area with the temples (which was really a shame as it seemed like it had added even more local character), and allowed the construction of many new guesthouses to accommodate the influx of tourists. But, Hans verified, the general feel of the place had remained the same; and we instantly understood how so many people extended their stay in the tranquil refuge Hampi provided from the rest of India.

Another example of this struggle to keep up with modern times without quite having the means was their ferry system. Hampi is split by a river. On one side there are the temple ruins, bus stop and main town, and on the other a single dirt road lined with guesthouses, restaurants and small shops overlooking the river with nothing opposite except the rice paddies that had always been there. In order to get across the river (where we decided we wanted to stay) there is a single ferry, which in the days of Hans’ first visit were small baskets that could fit maybe four people and a rower, but now consisted of a single put-put motorboat that sputters its way straight across, unloads, reloads, and comes back.

The ferry during the quiet hours

The ferry during the quiet hours

We made our way down to the river only to find that every other person on the multiple night buses that had arrived seemed to have the same plan. Then the locals arrived, pushing their way to the front, and it was all out chaos.

As we stood waiting the crowd grew and jockeyed for a spot at the front, hardly moving aside for the people trying to get off the ferry, and then shoving their way, not caring if someone slipped a step down into the river. The ferry driver and attendant shouted at the people to sit closer together and stop pushing to little avail. Then the skinny attendant would have to physically bar anyone else from trying to get on the boat when it got too full, putting his arms across the narrow entry plank and using his shoulders to push the crowd back. At one point, realizing the crowd was too solid for those disembarking the ferry to penetrate, they pulled up to a different spot on the steps, creating a stampede (if such things are possible in such a small, tight space) to relocate to the new front of the line, only to pull back after the last person made their way off and return to the prior embarking area…which was of course followed by another stampede. We waited for an hour, not wanting to end up in the river or deal with the locals pinching our arms trying to squeeze past and sneak on the boat, finally making it to the other side. The whole experience was wildly entertaining.

Together with Hans we spent the days exploring first on foot, which proved to be too hot, then on bicycle. The landscape of Hampi was unlike any other place we’ve seen so far. Similar to Arizona in its desert like appearance of round boulders piled on top of each other, and short shrug like greenery spotting the hills, while tall palm trees stuck up from the ground. The biggest difference being the stretches of bright green rice paddies sectioned out instead of sand and cacti.

Going off of memory Hans steered us in the direction of a reservoir where you could go swimming. Or, I should say, intended to steer us in that direction. We missed the turn off the road as we went through a small town and continued along huffing and puffing up not one, but two MASSIVE hills. Just as we reached the bottom of the second, a young guy stopped us and asked, “Lake?” Yes, we were headed to the lake (reservoir). Motioning with his hands he said, “Back that way. At town, right.” We turned looking back at the hill we had just coasted down feeling defeated. But we turned our bikes around and hiked our way back up both hills, finally finding the turn. Sweating and exhausted we stopped at a small restaurant just before the reservoir for something cool to drink, where we…well, how do I put this diplomatically…had a cultural experience of a different kind. We were offered a bang lassi, which is a typical Indian yogurt like drink mixed with weed, and sometimes hash, but that’s mostly in the north. I should also say that weed is all but legal in most parts of India, and still used by the babas (priests) in many places. If there was any time to try a bang lassi this was it, so we accepted.

Swimming in the reservoir

Swimming in the reservoir

We continued on our way, hiking up one last hill, and following the dirt road winding along next to the reservoir. We started to have doubts about actually swimming (hot as we were) when we saw the spray-painted signs on the boulders warning not to swim because of the crocodiles. But the local man bathing assured us it was just an effort to deter drunken people from swimming at night. We took turns jumping into the water, being pushed under the bridge by the strong current and drifting back to shore, and laying out on the rocks. We looked at each other, checking in. Hans looked at us, “I can’t tell if the lassi has kicked in yet, or if I’m so happy that I can’t stop smiling.”

“I don’t know, maybe I feel a tingle.”

“No I don’t feel anything.”

With Hans

With Hans

And then at once, it hit all three of us. In our new lassi-induced-state, we took a look at the daunting steepness of the hill we had to climb next. One of us broke the silence by letting out an exhausted sigh, which broke us into laughter for the next five minutes. We were barely making it up the hills earlier; it was going to be comical to see our efforts now. Nonetheless we got back on our bikes and peddled up, down, around, winding in and out of rice paddies, and through (actual) small villages. It was the first time, Ian and I agreed, we had been totally surrounded by silence since our arrival in India. Other than an occasional passing motorbike, the breeze through palm fronds and the sound of the bicycle chain going round and round, no noises disturbed the tranquil surroundings. We took it all in, totally blissed and mostly in silence.

We peddled and peddled and finally made our way back to the guesthouse to relax, but soon realized the bang lassis lasted longer than we had anticipated and it might be better to keep ourselves busy, as tempting as it was to just go into our rooms and take a long nap. Hans urged us on to head for the other side of town as he and I needed to go to the ATM. But, of course, that ATM wasn’t working, so we had to take a tuk-tuk to another one, which turned out to be out of money. Luckily two guys showed up with what looked like a laptop bag of money and refilled it; no armored vehicle, no guns, just a couple scrawny guys with a bag full of rupees.

We hit “rush hour” at the ferry on our way back to the other side so instead of doing the whole standing, shoving, total mayhem scene we hired one of the basket “ferries” and, kind of like the teacup ride at amusement parks, twisted this way and that across while everyone else sat waiting. All in all, it was a day of exploration, awe and laughs.

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Over the next couple days we continued exploring, battling sore bums from the bicycle seats, jumping off cliffs into the reservoir, exploring temples, meeting new people all the while and expanding our group. We spent our last day on motorbikes, exploring the areas farther out, in the company of Hans and another couple we met, Markos and Su-Jin. As we drove through the beautiful countryside one last time the idea of leaving felt harder and harder. And in fact, it seemed as though Hampi wanted to keep us there. If anyone has seen the Wes Anderson film Darjeeling Limited our experience had an uncanny resemblance to the opening scene. Let me explain.

We were scheduled on the 9:15 overnight train headed for Mysore, which you have to catch from the neighboring town. To do this you must go back to the main side of Hampi and get a tuk-tuk to the station. The ferry however stops running around 6:30, at which point you can hire the baskets to take you across. But this is India, and just because they say the baskets always run, doesn’t mean they actually do. Which, of course, was exactly the case that night. Starting to feel a little worried we walked back up to the travel agent we had booked our train tickets through who assured us it was no problem and we could rent a tuk-tuk, but it would be expensive as it was very far. The tuk-tuk barely stopped to let us in before taking off down the bumpy, dirt road leading out of town. He asked us casually the time of our train, and when we told him he looked alarmed and replied that it takes an hour to get there (it was now twenty past nine) and began to drive in earnest. We sped along the back road totally aware that we might miss our train and more than okay with going back to Hampi and relaxing for another day. Indians use their horns liberally to announce their every move on the street, and our driver was no exception. He all but laid on the horn as he blasted through small villages starting to settle down for the night, turning on a light now and then asking us to check to make sure our bags were still in the vehicle. We made it, amazingly and somewhat begrudgingly, with minutes to spare. We weren’t out yet. Ian lit up a cigarette, enjoying what would be his last for many hours, only to be yelled at by a station master that there was no smoking allowed. He motioned for us to go into his office, and we assumed we wouldn’t be allowed back out before paying some kind of bribe, but another station master just waved us away again. Then the train arrived and it was like the chaos of the ferry, multiplied. We realized our car was all the way at the other end of the platform and began running down…you can never be sure how long they will stay at the station. And sure enough just as we reached our car it started its slow chug. With our packs throwing our balance off, we wobbled our way up the steps onto the moving train. Whether we liked it or not we had managed to tear ourselves away from beautiful Hampi.

Happy last day in Hampi

Happy last day in Hampi

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Goa – Guest Written by Ian!

As we arrived at the airport for a quick up and down from Udaipur to Goa, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was leaving one country and headed to another. After a very turbulent ride (seriously, the turbulence scared the crap out of me) on IndiGo we arrived in Goa eager for some warm weather and to see what this ‘backpacker destination’ was all about. Goa welcomed us with advertisements for casinos, Sheraton hotels, Smirnoff Vodka, and government advisories to practice safe sex; a stark contrast from the country we had known to be India up until this point.

Typical day

Typical day

The 90 degree heat felt amazing as we hopped into our overpriced cab heading 1.5 hours to northern Goa to a beach town called Arambol. Unsure of our initial reaction to Goa, also unsure whether our cab driver was capable of going slower than 75MPH the entire way, we remained mostly silent just observing and absorbing our new surroundings as we drove down the tropical roads to our destination, letting each other take it all in individually then comparing our thoughts later on. I’ve come to realize that being in a place for the first time and trading thoughts and reactions is one of the ultimate enjoyments of traveling with somebody.

Although it felt nice to finally see fellow backpackers, it quickly became clear that maybe Arombal wasn’t entirely our scene. We had entered the land of (western) yogis on some sort of ‘spritual quest’—downward facing dogs on the beach, meditating during sunset, silent retreats in the jungle, some kind of prayer before eating their vegetarian something-or-other—along with Russians taking Sports Illustrated Swimsuit photo shoots by day and dancing to bad techno by night. Instead of Arambal holding its own identity that is true to its history and local people, it is merely catering to what they believe western travelers desire during their holiday. For as far as the eye could see along the beautiful sands of Arambal, all I could see was the beginning of an overdeveloped nightmare.

Luckily, on our second day in Arambol, we discovered a beautiful and secluded bungalow that sat directly on the ocean (no beach, just rocks, then ocean) that was quiet and a place where Elizabeth and I comfortably called home for the next week or so. We spent the next week doing very little and it felt awesome. Waking up every day and knowing that the day can take you in any direction you’d like is awfully liberating and allows your mind to drift and simply take in your surroundings, as if you’re tapping back in to that childlike wisdom that we seem lose as we grow older. At night, we were put to sleep with the sounds of the waves crashing onto the rocks and in the morning we were gently woken up to Indians with long bristled brooms sweeping the streets. Also, a sign that it was late enough to wake up and grab our chai masalas from the nearby restaurant.

It’s funny how you meet the perfect people at just the right time. After a week in our own little paradise, we felt that it was finally time to continue working our way south. In our neighborhood of bungalows we happened to meet two Newfie’s (people from Newfoundland), Emily and Hillary, who were also looking to head south. So we split a cab 4 ways and traveled 3 hours to nearby Agonda while the Newfie’s continued on a few miles down the road to Palolem. We enjoyed trading stories about our time in India so far and it was reassuring to find out that places like Delhi were just as tough on Emily and Hillary as it was on us. There’s a belief in Newfoundland that wherever you go, you’ll find a fellow Newfie; after telling them that I had a grandfather that grew up in Newfoundland I think I successfully helped prove their belief correct.

Agonda is what you imagine an island in the middle of nowhere to feel like. There is   a beach that has hillsides to the north and south and one single road lined with coconut palm trees that runs parallel that is filled with authentic thali restaurants, tailors, ayurvedic medicine shops, a single store to buy alcohol, and shacks filled with the necessities (toilet paper, water, snacks, cigarettes). In other words, what made Agonda feel so special is that is truly felt like an authentic town in India that hadn’t yet been overrun with western development.

While we enjoyed our time in Agonda, it had so little going on that even Elizabeth, who knows how to do nothing better than anyone I’ve ever met (she’s giving me the classic “Elizabeth Stare”), was ready to do head toward the livelier and more traveled Palolem. So after 4 days relaxing on a beach, swimming and playing paddle ball, we headed for Palolem.

Palolem seemed to strike a perfect balance between the overdevelopment of Arambol and the relaxed and authentic vibe of Agonda. As the southern most town in Goa, Palolem serves as a cross section of backpackers en route to southern India and backpackers en route to Rajasthan or other northern Indian destinations. Palolem felt comfortable and it was surprising to all of a sudden realize that 5 more days had passed. We spent our mornings at “Our Little World” that served 10 rupee chai and offered some of the best food we have eaten so far in India. After an afternoon on the beach, we would walk through the palm tree forest onto the main road to find a 100 rupee thali or a 50 rupee dosa. And by night we would drink a shandy as the sun set and then think about what to have for dinner. Tough life.

DSCN4858A

Our last 2 nights in Palolem, we discovered a small restaurant that gave off a very real and welcoming vibe. Owned by an Indian and his Australian wife and helped run (for free) by a British wine distributor who has been traveling for the past seven years, these people made us feel as if we were locals that had been coming to their restaurant regularly for years. Our first night there I finally learned how to play Backgammon, which for some reason really meant a lot to me. It is a game I’ve wanted to learn my entire life but never seemed as though in my day to day life back home I had the time to learn.

On our 2nd night we were the only ones who came in to the restaurant, which allowed us to have an incredibly insightful conversation with the two owners and the British wine distributor. Our conversation was so beautifully smooth and interesting that we never even took it upon ourselves to learn their names. For the better part of a month Elizabeth and I had been traveling India with so many questions, observations, and opinions about this country as well as the travelers within it with very few people, other than each other, to bounce our ideas off of.

It made us feel less critical and judgmental to know that these three locals also found it laughable that the only people you actually see doing yoga in India are Westerners, or that meditating on the beach during sunset inhibits you from actually looking at the beautiful scenery.

Coconut pickers shimmying up the trees

Coconut pickers shimmying up the trees

We also discussed that, for the five of us, the best ways to find happiness is to lead lives and make decisions that may be different from the social norms of making money, buying property, and thinking about the future.  For the British wine distributor, a small client list that financially enables him to continue traveling (for seven straight years) is better than owning a large company and making a higher salary even though that had been an option for him. For the owners of the restaurant running a low-key eatery for eight months and then relaxing for the four months of monsoon season with his family in the foothills of the Himalayas is a more successful life than the constant stress of owning the largest and busiest restaurant in town. Just as Elizabeth and I are finding that working half the year and then seeing the world for the second half is the most rewarding way we can live our life right now. We left the restaurant that night immediately feeling like this was the conversation that we had been looking for.

Backpacking is an interesting way to travel and it often feels that just as you’re beginning to hit your groove that it is all of a sudden time to leave. We had just gotten comfortable with our routine in Palolem but realized it was time to follow the other backpackers to the next stop, Hampi. The sadness of leaving the beach behind quickly turned into excitement as we arrived at the bus stop headed for Hampi filled with backpackers passing time by trading stories of where they’d been or where they’re going. Hampi already felt like the perfect next stop.

Sun kissed and happy

Sun kissed and happy

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Rajasthan Part3: Udaipur

DSCN4242AIn contrast to Bundi we arrived in Udaipur, the “Venice of India,” to sun shine, stunning white marble architecture, and wide, clean streets. Without booking we showed up at a guesthouse and inquired about a room. The manager said he had none available, but invited us to sit and have a chai with him while he made some phone calls searching other guesthouses for us. But after a while we thanked him for his efforts and the tea and left to search on our own. Our tuk-tuk driver, still parked outside, immediately jumped out and offered to walk us to a nearby guesthouse he had dropped other customers at a day ago. From there a young boy showed us a room, and then offered to take us to his father’s guesthouse (we were currently at his uncle’s guesthouse) down the road. We were handed off from person to person, all eager and willing to help us find accommodation. It was a real insight into the kindness we saw again and again during our stay.  We found ourselves a sunny room that looked over a temple and onto the lake, with a rooftop terrace outfitted with cushioned lounge seats and nice cold beer. Needless to say, we were very happy campers.

The many maharajah tombs

The many maharajah tombs

We spent a day lounging before jumping into the sightseeing. But we didn’t do our research (shocking I know) and due to the fact that it was their independence day the main attractions were closed. We opted instead to hire a tuk-tuk and explore the outskirts of Udaipur. We zoomed through traffic, passing an elephant trudging through the road at one point, to a domed city of maharaja tombs, and a local lake where we were just as much a spectacle as the boys jumping into the water. We later read that there are crocodiles in some parts of the lake, yikes! We capped it all off by meeting back up with our tuk-tuk driver, who showed us his secret spot to sip on some beers and watch the sun set over the rolling hills and the floating hotel in the middle of the lake. It was a relaxing, easy and beautiful way to pass a day.

The next day we tried doing the whole tourist thing again, this time successfully…kind of. Just like Bundi the big site is the palace, up on a hill overlooking the lake. Though somewhat more preserved than the one in Bundi, each room was packed to the gills with tourists, both western and Indian, all jostling their way to the front to take a picture of whatever was on display; even, in one case, a sign on the wall. Ian and I kept wondering if anyone was really there to appreciate the artifacts, or were they there to just take pictures and maybe review them later. The museum herds the crowds on one path, with no other escape (ahem, exit) other than the one at the very end, so we were forced to follow the pace of tour groups and people taking selfies.  We left saying we would have rather gone to the rundown palace in Bundi any day over the mob scene of this preserved palace museum.

Hoping to redeem our day of being good tourists we decided to take a boat ride around the lake. Our outdated guidebook we snagged from the left book rack at a guesthouse told us the rides are pricey but worth it. Well if they were pricey in 2009 when the book was published, they’ve skyrocketed since. We arrived and paid the equivalent of two nights stay for a 20 minute ride. Longer rides were offered, and some allowing you to get off at a small island in the middle, but those were even more ridiculously priced. We spent the entire ride, which really just consisted of a small loop 20 feet off the shore to the blaring sounds of bollywood music, laughing at how pathetic it all was. We had tried, failed, and were done with the tourist activities.

Traditional Thali

Traditional Thali

No longer feeling obligated to go sightseeing, we spent our last day in Udaipur lounging on the roof,updating the blog, writing emails, doing research, and being lazy. We found a restaurant run by two friendly brothers, serving an unlimited thali (a tray with curries, dal, rice, chapatti bread, and curd, a typical Indian meal that’s cheap and delicious) and decided to go back for a second night in a row. A sign on the wall, and in fact on all the walls of the restaurants in Udaipur, offered a free showing of the James Bond movie Octopussy, as parts were filmed in the floating hotel. Clearly a source of great pride for them, but maybe one that’s been a bit overdone, since we didn’t actually see anyone play the movie. The previous night Ian had asked the chef brother about different curries, and he ended up bringing us a sample of one he described. This night was no exception. They welcomed us as friends and went to work on our food, making sure it was as spicy as we had requested the night before. Their mother, who was sitting in the corner, and in town visiting for a family wedding, even hopped into the kitchen to make our chapatti. We again started asking them about how to make different curries and chapattis and halfway through their explanation just said “come into the kitchen and try it!” So following their instructions I had my first go at making some Indian food.

Ian and I both realized it’s these interactions, and easy conversation, are what we’ve been craving on our trip. The country is an amazing place and the people beautiful, but at times everything seems so transactional. We can’t just ask about the lake without having someone touting a boat tour, or wonder at some local art without being offered it at a good price. It was refreshing to have our compliments and questions met with simple appreciation and excitement to share with us their culture. Udaipur, from start to finish was an example of both the beauty of the country and its people.

An incredible sunset on our last night in Udaipur

An incredible sunset on our last night in Udaipur

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Rajasthan Part2: Bundi

Still not ready to take on the hustle and bustle of bigger cities we opted out of the nearby Johdepur, known for its blue buildings and mighty fort, deciding instead to go to the quieter Bundi. We rode our first government bus (aka no frills bus) through the countryside and in and out of towns, noticing that there’s no such thing as a “small village” in India; it’s either a few crudely constructed houses in the middle of nowhere OR sprawling towns with enough people to fill a city, by our standards. It’s these “small towns” that help us get a sense of what 1 billion people look like.

One of the old city gates

One of the old city gates

Bundi is one of these “small” towns that must have once been an enchanting walled city, sitting below a palace built into the side of the rolling hills. Today the beautiful curved arches are crumbling and the grand havelis (mansions) of the social elite are overgrown with shrubs and littered with trash. Here and there you can see the attempts at boosting tourism in the two or three havelis that have been restored and turned into hotels, and in the efforts to promote lakeside restaurants and guesthouses. But the decaying buildings and collapsing, cramped space, and smell of raw sewage when it rained in the morning was a reminder that this town has seen better days. We enjoyed it nonetheless. We found the people to be genuine and friendly. Kids we passed yelled hello and held out their hand to shake ours. We had the most delicious dinner and pleasant company at the guesthouse/restaurant Hadee Rani where, by the looks of the empty rooms, we were pretty sure no one had stayed in a while. At the suggestion of the owner we ordered their special chicken dish, which meant that they had to run down to the market to buy the chicken, making for a two hour wait that ended up being well worth it. The care for our comfort and desire to make us feel welcome in their home was a true example of the warmth of the Indian people. It was also the kind of slow pace we were looking for after the mayhem of the city.

The palace built into the hills

The palace built into the hills

The main attraction in Bundi is the palace/fort overlooking the town. We took the morning to hike up and wander around the grounds which have a sort of magical feeling, almost as if it is trapped in time. Except in the place of the maharaja and his court, bats and monkeys occupy the palace rooms. The palace is broken into sections, with the courtyards in the middle, and the rooms surrounding them, each one adorned with glass mosaics and intricate paintings and carvings that decorate the walls and pillars. One room in particular is well preserved displaying blue and green paintings of the maharaja, elephant fights, and a wedding ceremony. The photos will do a better job describing what my words can’t.

Higher up still was the fort, overlooking the palace and city. We were warned that the monkeys can be a bit aggressive up there, but we hardly saw any. Among the various overlooks were two enormous step wells, dug three stories deep into the earth. Apparently up until a few years ago when the government built some kind of tower nearby and used the water in the wells to mix the cement, they were full and in good shape. Now nearly or entirely empty the wells are starting to crack. It’s always so interesting to see this difference between travelers who go out of their way to visit such places and glimpse India’s past, and the locals who don’t think about the preservations of their treasures, just about using the resources they need. I don’t mean to imply it’s so black and white, or that they don’t care. Only that in a country where the money is spread so thin and the people are faced with the option to preserve or to build and maybe better their daily lives, it’s only logical that they use the water to build a tower and risk destroying a well that’s been functioning for hundreds of years.

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Making our way back down we finally encountered a monkey. We heard a rustling in the bushes behind us and turned to see a rather large monkey (about 4 feet if standing up) charging us baring its teeth. Ian, already wary of the monkeys jumped behind me and pointed. I banged our stick (a very nice walking stick a man selling water had given us “For the monkeys! For the monkeys!” before we hiked up) on the rocks and yelled at the monkey, like I had seen the locals do, thus stopping his charge and saving the day!

As charming as Bundi was, the days were gray, and muddy, dung filled streets smelled, and we decided we were ready to move on. Just to prove we had made the right decision and its days weren’t going to get any sunnier and warmer, or smells nicer, we arrived at 5:45 for our 6 am train and ended up waiting two hours on the dark, cold train platform, in the company of many pooping monkeys as our sendoff.

Even the cows have to wait for the trains in India

Even the cows have to wait for the trains in India

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Rajasthan Part1: Pushkar

As the city slipped away and the sun came up over the Indian countryside Ian and I relaxed back into our seats, relieved to be out of the Delhi. Unexpectedly our nerves returned the closer we got to our destination, Pushkar. Realizing, once again, that we had no idea what we were about to dive into, or even how to dive into it, getting off the train seemed surprisingly daunting. We were both asking ourselves: Would Pushkar be better than Delhi? And the even bigger question neither of us really wanted to face, What if we came all this way and we don’t like it, what if we don’t like India? Jet-lagged and culture-shocked, we had a hard time reminding ourselves that it was only our second full day and too early to be making such decisions. Nevertheless, the anxiety of those feelings still weighed on us. But we rolled into Ajmer (the neighboring city to Pushkar) and had to get off the secure confines of train and give it another go. When we did we were met by the usual onslaught of auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers vying for our patronage.

Happily lazing the day away on the rooftop

Happily lazing the day away on the rooftop

The ride from Ajmer to Pushkar took us up and over and down a winding road through a mountain pass from where the city of Pushkar lay before us. Centered around a lake, where many Indians come to bathe in the holy waters, the winding streets of the bazaar offer silver jewelry, embroidered pointed-toed leather shoes, and “Ali Baba” pants that seem to laughably be the backpacker uniform. Every so often a break in the buildings would reveal a small temple and steps leading down to the lake. Cows and pigs ambled down the road, munching on the trash strewn about the streets, as people and motorbikes part to move around them. Our guesthouse, aptly named Paramount Palace, was up on one of the higher hills giving us a beautiful panorama of the city. We spent a lot of our time lounging on their rooftop terrace watching the daily doings of people on the streets below. Our favorite were the battles between the locals and the menacing monkeys, where the locals used big sticks to chase the monkeys away from their roofs and the monkeys would jump just far enough out of their reach to taunt them.

A view from the rooftop to one of the bigger temples on the lake

A view from the rooftop to one of the bigger temples on the lake

On our first day we knowingly, but powerless to stop it, got sucked into a tourist trap by “priests” down at the lake. They tell you they are priests and want to help you make a tradition blessing for all your love ones. They shove flowers into your hand and push you towards a seat by the water where they proceed to wash your hands in the lake (I cringed at doing this, there was nothing purifying feeling about this water), repeat all the gods’ names, and then the names of your loved ones. After what seems like a hundred gods they mix the yellow powder signifying sanctity and red powder signifying love and prosperity and paint a red line on your forehead and tell you to cast your flowers into the holy waters. If it weren’t such a scam it might actually be a beautiful ceremony. But it is a scam which is even more apparent when they finish up by insisting that your wishes won’t come true without a donation, suggesting at least a few hundred rupees. I skirted away from my “priest” (they had separated us…the old divide and conquer scheme) but Ian wasn’t so lucky. When he declined to donate they vocally pushed him saying, “I see your wallet, take out your wallet.” In the end we gave them the smallest note we had just to escape the scene. Ian commented that the only time he’s ever been robbed is by a so-called priest.

Bathing in the holy waters of the lake

Bathing in the holy waters of the lake

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These things happen though. The difference is that at this point Pushkar had shown us enough beauty in both the land and the people that we didn’t allow one questionable experience to deter our desire to explore India. Conversations with a very poor man outside a temple who only wished to educate us on the rituals of Pushkar, the chef at our guesthouse explaining the ingredients and process of cooking Indian food, and a man explaining the different areas of a Brahma temple revealed the India I had fantasized about visiting. This was the hospitality and warmth I had heard about. For the first time since we had arrived in India I felt excited to be back on the road, exploring this new part of the world.

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Culture Shock

Ella and I in Padangbai

Ella and I in Padangbai

It turns out I never finished my last blog post from a year and a half ago; and now, sadly, it’s too far gone. The short story goes a little like this: I left Burma and flew into the metropolitan airport in Singapore where everyone was drinking Starbucks and sporting the latest designer duds. From there I hopped a flight to Bali where I crashed with my Koh Tao friend Ella (who was working at a dive shop) in the peaceful town of Padangbai where I had the pleasure of diving with her. The diving in Bali was a whole new world of color, fish and healthy coral life, a spectacular experience! Thank you Ella! In the few areas I visited, including Ubud, the “cultural capital of Bali,” I found the natural beauty eclipsed by the many billboards advertising surf labels and luxury apartments, and tourists shopping at Tommy Hilfiger and Pandora bracelet shops. It was an overwhelming assault on the senses after the peaceful and traditional ways of Burmese life.

After 10 days there I met up with Kathryn (my aunt and world traveler extraordinaire) and crew for two weeks in beautiful Sulawesi. I could write for hours about Wakatobi resort, the island, the people and above all the diving, but as I said, I’m trying to do a quick recap here, and I’ve already gone on for too long.

To wrap it up, two amazing weeks in Sulawesi and eight incredible months in Asia came to an end, and it was time to make my way back to the US. Re-entry culture shock hit just as hard. But as always, with time, home, life and work become normal again and time goes by and plans for a new trip are made. And so a year and a few months, a restocked bank account, a new boyfriend (Ian), and a plane ticket later, Ian and I found ourselves headed back to the other side of the world.

Once again, the foreign that felt familiar, and the familiar that felt foreign get confused and when back in the foreign it feels truly foreign. Landing in New Delhi, India was a mix of excitement and absolute terror. What are we doing here?! Delhi is like no other place I’ve ever been; it’s every city’s sounds, smells and population multiplied exponentially. Nothing has order or rules…they don’t even bother painting lane lines on the roads because the “rule” is that if you can fit in it you can drive it. A road made for three lanes has six cars and five bikes swerving and honking and edging their way towards the city. You have to wonder…where are all these people going?! Wherever it was, they were going with purpose; even if that purpose was to sweep an already bare patch of dirt on the side of the road.

The ally leading to our guesthouse

The alley leading to our guesthouse

Our taxi driver assured us we were getting close to our hotel, which was surprising unsettling. We had gone past busy, but tree-lined, open and sunny, streets and were now in a jumble of slimy concrete buildings that crammed so together they blocked the sun. The area is known as the Old Bazaar, where “all the backpackers stay,” which seemed like it a good place to get our bearings and meet some people.

It did neither. We attempted to venture out and make our way to the historical sites, but were immediately overrun by tuk-tuk drivers offering rides, street-sellers calling to us, and in particular, one friendly man “on his way to work” who then followed us for 20 minutes. The other travelers we saw weren’t much help either as they kept their heads down and pushed their way through to avoid the bombardment. We retreated to the guesthouse where the man took one look at us and said “too tough?” Recognizing defeat we hired a taxi driver to take us around to some of the sites of Delhi for the rest of the day. The Red Fort was beautiful and green and though still packed with people, calm. We visited three temples including the Giant Lotus Temple, and attempted to see the Gate of India, but were barred as the whole area had been blocked off in preparation for Obama’s visit on the 26th of January, their independence day. We’ve been told daily of Obama’s visit which is shutting down the city and employing thousands of Indian military. Every time someone asks where we are from they answer with, “Obama is coming! Twenty-six of January he will be here!”

Neither the sights nor the idea of seeing the grand Independence Day parade were enough to entice us to stay another minute in Delhi. We booked our train tickets to a “quiet and holy” city called Pushkar in the state of Rajasthan for early the next morning. And after a shower that made us feel even dirtier, a sleepless night on the gritty sheets in our tiny hotel room and an unfriendly sendoff we boarded a train and let Delhi fade from our sites.

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The last days of Burma

Slap happy at 5:30 in the morning

Slap happy at 5:30 in the morning

Monica and I arrived in Yangon at the charming hour of 5:30 am….in the pouring rain, of course. We were greeted by a sleepy-eyed employee at our guesthouse who at first couldn’t find our reservation and told us “Sorry, but we are full,” (nooooo!), and then a minute later, “Oooh! Ms. Monicaaaa,” (yaaaaay that’s us!), “Yes we have your room, but check-in is at 11 am.” Ugh. Only five and a half hours to kill. Luckily they were serving breakfast, with coffee, in a room with wifi. We spread out at a table, taking advantage of the first reliable wifi we had in weeks. But there was only so long we could make two cups of coffee, and a bit of toast and egg, stretch before we got slap happy from exhaustion. And still with two and a half hours to go.

Finally, FINALLY we were able to get into the room, where we crashed entirely. We emerged later that afternoon and headed out to explore the city on foot. Either the entire city snacks all the time, OR we cleverly (but unknowingly) placed ourselves in food central. Lining both sides of the streets were food stalls piled with fruits and different friend snacks, small bbq stands with steaming hot pigs ears on wooden skewers, small tea stands, and of course, noodle soup stalls. When we sat down for some soup the teenage boys taking orders giggled and took turns shoving each other towards us, each one too embarrassed to take our order. However, they had no problems yelling across to other people and pointing at us, as if to say “Look! We have foreign girls eating soup at our stand!” Several other people stopped as well, and just stood there, staring. We decided that either we looked as exhausted and disheveled as we felt, or that not many of the other tourists do this. Either way, we were just as much of an attraction for them as their everyday life is for us.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

From there we hopped in a taxi and decided to be “good tourists” and do something all the guidebooks say you “must see.” Bring on the Shwedagon Pagoda. At 2500 years old, Shwedagon is the oldest pagoda in the world, standing at a staggering 110 meters high (360-ish feet), completely covered in shiny gold plating and boasting around 4500 diamonds at its tip. And it’s still very much a functioning pagoda. As was our experience all over Burma, even the biggest tourist attraction has just as many locals going from temple to temple praying and washing the statues of Buddha, as tourists snapping photos. To our amusement we looked up to see a sweeping brigade facing us, spanning the entire walking area around the pagoda, a broom in each hand, waiting for the order to start. When it was given they began walking in their line sweeping left and right, making their way around the pagoda. But that wasn’t the end of it! Following the THREE rows of sweepers—and the five or six men with dustpans scurrying between the lines trying to keep up—came two rows of mopping brigades. As we watched the sweepers chatted with each other casually, or handed off one of their brooms to another person with only one so they could answer their cell phone, never missing a beat. I don’t know why I found it so hilarious but I did! Maybe because these things never happen in the U.S.; they’re always done at night by two or three people, not mid-afternoon with a sweeping army that you have to run to get out of the way from or risk being swept over, literally.

It's so shinny!!

It’s so shinny!!

Thoroughly exhausted from our one and only outing of the day, we made our way back to the hotel, well, more importantly, the food area. After indecisively roaming around a few streets, sitting at a restaurant, looking at the menu, getting up, going to a food stall, still not finding what we wanted, we finally stopped at a sidewalk Indian restaurant. We asked for chapatti, but were told “Noooo sorrryyyy, all finished! But we have pancake!” Ok, we’ll have two pancakes. You would think by our last few days in Burma we would have learned to ask about the food, or only get one to try first. But no, we haven’t learned. We thought we were safe because it was Indian, not Burmese food. Silly us. Instead of a savory dinner pancake, two rolled pancakes were placed in front of us drenched in syrup. This was so not what we wanted for dinner. Food fail. Still, we had to try it. It’s not that it was bad, we just wanted dinner, not cloyingly sweet, shredded coconut in white sugar, and heavily dressed in syrup…because that half a cup of sugar inside just wasn’t enough. We ate enough not to be disrespectful, and paid our bill and went on the hunt again. Just as we were about to give up and buy chips and beer and sit in the hotel, we found a little kebab place two doors down from the hotel. Here we picked from about 15 different kinds of kebabs: boiled quail eggs, chicken sausage, okra, whole fish, pork dumplings, shrimp, etc. All on the grill, then quickly in our stomachs. Yum.

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Umbrellas for rain or sun

We decided for our last day we would go on the Circle Train, which does what its name implies and circles the city. You can get off and back on when you want, and it allows you to see more of the city and surrounding areas than you would be able to on foot. But after breakfast we were both dragging our feet and we realized that neither one of us wanted to spend our last day in Burma stuck on a train…we’ve done plennnnty of that already. So instead we walked to a garden with a small lake (or really big pond, whichever) we had passed the day before and strolled along the long wooden bridge that winded its way through the grounds. It was exactly what we needed; beautiful surroundings, our own schedule, and time to reflect on the trip and wonder how the month had gone by so fast. Oh yeah, four days of our precious 28 day visa allowance gone due to train travel, that’s where that extra time went.

There are places I like more than others in my travels, but I have always come away from each country happy to have had the experiences I’ve had there. However Burma was the MOST AMAZING trip I’ve had yet. The country itself is beautiful, but the people are what make it exceptional; they are welcoming, friendly and caring, and honest. They want to share their country with you and make sure you leave with only good memories. Instead of saying “nice to meet you,” they would take our hands or touch our knee, make eye contact, smile their big beautiful smiles, and say “I’m so happy, I’m very happy.”  And so were we. Burma you made me so happy. Goodbye for now!

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Inle Lake

I’m not going to lie, I nearly wrote Inle Lake off entirely.

Monica and I arrived in the lake area around 3am…and I say area because it’s nowhere near the lake or the nearest town. You have to take a taxi of some form 20 minutes into Nyaung Shwe town, and when you want to tour the lake it’s another 30 minute boat ride from there. Bleary-eyed we found a guesthouse that let us in and fell back to sleep to the sound of light rain on the tin roofs.

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Teak monastery

Light rain turned to torrential rain later that morning, and Monica woke up with a fever. Needless to say, we spent the first day hiding in the room, sleeping and recovering. I ventured out for a short walk around town and was more than a little under whelmed with what I saw. The run-down town had none of the local charm we had experienced in other little towns in Burma. Here among the local market and noodle shop stands were French cafes with lounge chairs and coffee at five times the price of a normal cup and Italian restaurants with woodfire pizza. It had the affect of creating a clear divide between Inle for the locals and Inle for the tourist, whereas in other places everyone is eating at little coffee shops together (with the exception of Bagan). Tom had warned us that Inle would look like Indawgyi Lake but be more touristy, but so far I had seen none of the natural beauty…which I admitted to myself might have been due to the fact we got in at night and the rain was whiting everything else out (this is the first place where we are experiencing full monsoon season weather). Luckily by day two Monica was feeling better and we rented bikes and explored a bit farther outside the main market area. Here, we were happy to find, was more the landscape and feel we were expecting; green fields, rolling mountains, and winding canals with local boys squatting on the banks fishing. We weaved our way down a back road to a local winery and splurged on wine tasting and a bottle of red. It was heavenly, and not just because it has been seven months since I’ve had wine that didn’t come from a box, but because it’s actually very well made wine.

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Trying to look like we’re having fun when in reality I was so cold I couldn’t feel my toes at that point

On our third day we woke up to an absolute downpour, but we felt we couldn’t put off doing the lake tour any longer. Besides, judging by the weather the past few days, the next (and our last) day might not be any better. As luck would have it, it let up a bit just as we started walking to the tour agency where we would meet our boat guide. But that luck didn’t last, because as soon as we set out to walk down to the canal the skies let loose and we were soaked through in a matter of a minute. We sat huddled in the boat, jackets and hoods on, umbrellas up and shielding us from the onslaught of rain and wind. So we didn’t see much, were too cold to fully appreciate the textile weaving house we stopped at, were unimpressed by the overpriced watered-down noodle soup, and had adopted a general feeling of, “This is it? This is what everyone thinks is so amazing?” We sat at lunch staring out the window at the sheets of rain completely miserable.

Then the miraculous happened, a patch of blue sky appeared, and with it a faint ray of sunshine. Then it spread. And all of a sudden the surrounding mountains came out of the clouds, people emerged from their houses and the lake came alive. We floated down canals lined by grasses and purple lilies, through villages supported on stilts, and around the famous foot-rowing fishermen who alternate between paddling and slapping the water with long rods to get the fish out the seaweed and into the nets. And finally we understood why people find this place so special.

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Certainly makes more a different kind of front yard

It’s still not my favorite thing to been carted from one tourist attraction to the next (cigar rolling house, silversmith house, goldsmith house, etc) and stare at people sitting on a wooden platform on display, who push you to buy everything…even as you say again and again that you don’t smoke. But doing the tourist thing meant that we also got to see some things we haven’t seen before, such as women from the “long-neck” tribe, and have the unique experience of being in the midst of a whole town built in the middle of a lake. I’m glad we went to Indawgyi Lake first, with its beautiful landscape and local village, and we all agreed (including Tom) it still feels more special than Inle. But as we made our way back to town, pants almost dried, Monica and I confessed, maybe we had passed judgment on Inle Lake too quickly, and it is indeed a truly special place.

Not only did the sun transform the lake, the town also felt more friendly and alive. Our last day we spent walking around from food stand to food stand, eating Shan noodle soup and drinking tea with three different kinds of cookies. Then it was time to board our bus headed south to our final stop, Yangon. Twelve hours on a freezing cold bus (why they feel the need to turn the bus into an ice-box is beyond me). And now here we are, getting ready for our last couple days in this amazing and beautiful country. Where has this month gone?!

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Then there were two…again

After our taxi-truck ride back to Hopin we had a five hour wait before the night train BACK to Mandalay and then the bus to Bagan. This time we tried our luck in “first class” which is like ordinary class (wooden seats) but with a little bit of padding. We followed the lead of the locals and lay down between the seats and in the aisles instead of trying to sleep sitting up. In the U.S. people would be shocked and tell you to get back into your seat. In Asia people are happy to lift themselves up and shimmy their way down the car standing on the armrests rather than wake the person sleeping in aisle. After two days of truck, train and bus travel we arrived in Bagan.

We went from being the only westerns in a whole city or town to being surrounded by tourists again. As we walked around we saw Italian restaurants a very American looking sports bar, and everything jumped, no, took a massive leap, in price. We nearly choked when we went to order Indian food at the recommended Indian restaurant and saw that they charged 3000K ($3) for chapatti when we are used to paying 200K (20 cents). Luckily there’s always that little corner restaurant where all the locals sit, where the food is good and cheap and the jasmine tea is complimentary. We hung out there and got a feast for three people, with beer, and still paid less than what they wanted for one chapatti.

After resting up for a day we felt ready to take on the thousands of pagodas. We rented bikes and got lost, making it an unspoken challenge to find the most remote paths. Despite the intermittent rain we hiked a pagoda to watch sunset, and then woke up at 4:30 to watch sunrise. It’s a truly epic place that’s beauty and grandeur is hard to express in words, so I’ll just let my pictures do the talking.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Tom who headed back to Australia after eight months in Asia. Monica and I got on yet another bus and headed for InleLake. We’ll miss you Tom!

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