Archive for May, 2013

covering ground

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a little while ago i made the drastic but not that drastic decision to re-connect with Nicolas in Nepal on or before May 14th.  with the monsoon biting at our heels, this would be our last chance to do some trekking.  still in Mumbai on the 11th and over 1200 miles away i had quite a bit of ground to cover.  so being the travel masochist that i am i decided to take non-stop buses and trains until i reached Kathmandu.  here is a play-by-play of my journey:

P1020962shortly after midnight on the morning of May 11th i boarded a 31 hour train from Mumbai to Varanasi.   i took sleeper class because that was all that was available at short notice.  i got a top bunk where i spent most of my time sleeping.  there wasn’t room to do much else.  all the rest of available space was taken up by piles of people.  it was a giant Indian cuddle puddle that collectively swayed along with the movements of the train.  it took carefully planned ninja maneuvers to get to the lavatory and back.  the ride spanned 2 nights and a day.

i arrived in Varanasi early on the morning of the 12th.  i had a few hours to kill before my next train so i took a tuktuk into the city and had breakfast with two very nice French girls i met.  i caught only a glimpse of the beautiful narrow streets but it was enough to know that i had unfinished business there.  then i made my way back to the station to catch an 8 hour train to Gorakhpur – the closest you can get to Nepal by train.  as the train pulled up to the platform hoards of people crowded the sleeper car doors.  i assume most of them didn’t even have tickets.  i had an open ticket which meant that my chances of getting an unclaimed bed was just as good as there’s.  determined to spend the next 8 hours of my life in minimal comfort i cradled Escapo with my left arm and used my right arm to wedge my way into the crowd.  it was a tight and fast moving pit of madness.  their little Indian bodies managed to squeeze through the door 3 or 4 at a time.  when i could finally grab hold of bare metal it took all my strength to pull myself onto the car and through the doorway, then i used the same method to move through the corridor until i found the first empty bed.  i could see the painful looks on the faces of those that got pinned up against the sides as i forced my way past them.  i just looked them straight in the eye as if saying “don’t take this personally but i’m going to crush you now”.

i had to spend the night in Gorakhpur.  this is one of the most unfortunate, unfriendly and unaccommodating places i’ve ever been.

the next morning i caught an extremely packed 3 hour bus to the India/Nepal border town of Sunauli.  i could feel the hot breath of a crying baby goat in bag on my leg the entire way.  somehow it became my responsibility to hold the bag upright and make sure it didn’t get stepped on.  it baffles me how many people live in this country.  even out here in the periphery we pass giant nameless towns packed full of people all doing God knows what.

P1020964once i reached Sunauli i walked the remaining kilometer to the border and across it into Nepal.  i walked right past both Indian and Nepalese guards and thought it strange that not a single one stopped me or asked me for my passport.  then i backtracked and attempted to actually go through immigration the correct way which was not straight forward but simple enough.  100 US dollars afforded me a Visa good for 3 months.  by 11:30AM Nepal time (15 minutes ahead of India time) on May 13th i was in Nepal and free to roam.

i enjoyed a celebratory beer and chatted up some local border folk then hopped right back on a 9 hour bus to Kathmandu.  this was by far the most painful leg of the journey but it was also the most beautiful.  several hours into Nepal the landscape changes dramatically.  flat farm lands turn into tall mountains with lush green valleys and rivers.

i arrived in Kathmandu at my final destination at around 10pm.  the whole process took 70 hours, 51 of which were spent in transit.  the total transit cost for this 3-day journey came to $18.65.

i finally met up with Nicolas and new friend Katya on the rooftop of “The happily ever after” Hostel where we spent the next few days coming to grips with the fact that we were about to embark on a multi-week trek on the Annapurna Circuit.  none of us had done anything quite this intense before and we had lots of preparations to make.  luckily Kathmandu made the process very easy for us.  the area where we are staying in the Tamil District is loaded with shops selling quality trekking gear for dirt cheap.  i managed to procure a nice pair of boots, 3 pairs of socks, thermal underwear, pants, 2 shirts, a fleece, hat and gloves all for around $80.

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we spent a couple of days hiking around the Kathmandu Valley to break in our boots and take in some of the scenery that Nepal is so well known for.  we stayed the night in Nagarkot – a small mountain village that overlooks a vast landscape of rolling hills and terraced farms.  we visited the ancient city of Bhaktapur – the former capital of Nepal.  the architecture here is unlike anything i’ve ever seen.  old cozy brick buildings are stacked along like dominoes with intricately carved wooden windows and doors.  there are courtyards with temples, wells and ponds.  many places we went we saw alters with sacrificial goats in various stages of active dismemberment.

P1030119Kathmandu is a beautiful city with it’s own unique charm.  in the Tamil District, the crowded streets wind around and fork like veins throughout the city.  i couldn’t help but feel like a confused blood cell as i wandered about acquiring more provisions for the long journey ahead.  one night we had the misfortune of witnessing a fire breakout across the street from the restaurant we were dining at.  shortly after we paid the bill i noticed of bunch of commotion on the street.  when i went to check it out i could see billows of smoke rising from the rooftops above.  people were on the roof yelling to the people below.  people were running into the building attempting to salvage whatever they could.  others were fleeing from it.  after a while a huge explosion occurred causing a stampede in the street.

after spending only a few days here i decided that Nepal is near the top of my list of countries i’ve visited.  the views are stunning, the people are fair and welcoming, the towns and villages bare unique character.  it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

tomorrow we leave for Annapurna.  i may be off the grid for almost a month.

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the unforgiving city

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The Queens Necklace at sunset

the busy city bustle is what i asked for and that is exactly what i got.  a 12 hour sleepless train ride followed by a crooked but too tired to care taxi ride brings me to Colaba – the old town area of Mumbai located at the lower half of a peninsula.  my self-inflicted budget landed me on the questionable side of Colaba where the scams have been turned up a notch.  it’s situated next to a poor market along a seaside stone walkway that transitions into a slum extending out into the bay.  garbage, human waste and animal guts line the streets and shores.  this picturesque bio-hazard is home for the next several days while i wait for a package to arrive sent by my parents.

P1020922the price i usually spend on lodging (around $8) now affords me a 5×10 prison cell with a hard bed, paper thin walls and access to a shared bathroom.  it was in this room on my first night in a sleep deprived state where i had my first breakdown.  i regretted my decision to leave the complacent comfort of OM beach.  i missed my friends back home and i missed my $3000 Tempurpedic Cloud Supreme mattress.  come morning however, i felt a lot better.  its amazing what a few hours of sleep and tears will do to your outlook, even in place so strange.

ok, time to leave my depressing neighborhood and embark on a self-guided walking tour through this behemoth of a city with no map or sense of direction and only my curiosity and the advice of my fellow Indians to guide me.  please follow along with this personalized map of reconstructed events.

oh but first, a quick side note about asking Indians for directions…

when asking Indians for directions, it’s important to keep the following 6 things in mind if you wish to get to your destination in an efficient manor:

  1. ask multiple Indians: the last thing they want is to reveal to you that they don’t actually know where your desired destination is.  this fact is often masked by giving false directions or by letting you believe it’s in the direction you want it to be in.
  2. don’t ‘want’ it to be in a particular direction.  admit to yourself that you are lost and open your mind to the possibility that your desired destination could be in any direction.
  3. if the person to whom you are asking directions operates a taxi, tuktuk or auto-rickshaw.  break eye-contact immediately and then remove yourself from his personal area.
  4. if the person to whom you are asking directions responds by pointing straight up in the air while bobbling his head side to side, do not ask him to clarify, he will just keep on doing it.
  5. if they offer to ‘show you where it is’, this actually means that they want something from you and have decided to use this as an opportunity to try and get it.  the end result may or may not give you the insight you are hoping for.
  6. and finally, be very nice.  Indians are sensitive creatures and projecting the headache the last nine gave you on the tenth isn’t going to do anyone any good.  you did up and decide to go to their country after all.

ok, now back to our tour…

of course i had to visit Leopold Cafe (as made famous by best selling novel “Shantaram”).  the place was not at all like i pictured (which is often how that works).  i was seated and enjoyed an overpriced meal while i tried to imagine i was Gregory David Roberts circa the 80’s having shady dealings with Indians while pining over whats-her-face.  signed copies of Shantaram in paperback were stacked high on the counter to my left and behind the counter stood a man staring languidly out into the street… ok, that’s enough of that.

P1020851as soon as i left my neighborhood i began to witness some of the beauty and uniqueness that Mumbai has to offer.  being a former British colony dating back to the 1600’s, many old Victorian Gothic buildings still stand tall in rows along streets that make sense.  many buildings can not be entered because they are occupied with official government business.  some are heavily guarded by soldiers with assault riffles mounted on turrets with their fingers on the trigger and barrels pointed directly into pedestrian traffic.  at the center of it all is a perfectly laid-out oval field where dozens of simultaneous cricket matches are played.

not too far east is Marine Drive (aka, “The Queens Necklace”) – a causeway that extends for miles along a filthy beach and looks out at Malabar Point directly across the bay.  along the inside are upscale hotels, extravagant outdoor wedding venues, a cricket stadium and open fields where even more cricket is played.  the sprawl of tall buildings seems to extend the entire way around the bay and then stop near the end of the point where a forested area sits.  i needed to find out what that was.

when i reached the other side of the bay and climbed up Malabar Hill i was looking right back at where i was several hours earlier in Colaba.  this is a city that stares at itself continuously.

what does $5 get you at this place?

what does $5 get you at this place? Masala Dosa and a Kingfisher Strong

i almost reached the end of the point when i hit a gated off area with more armed guards.  it was the home of the governor of Maharashtra.  i could go no further.  i told one friendly guard that i had walked all the way here from Colaba just to shake the governor’s hand.  he would not have been wise to allow me to do so and i understood.  he instead directed me to a temple on the north end of the point.

after negotiating my way through a series of squirrelly cobblestone streets that wound through old buildings it opened up into a courtyard with a temple and bath.  children and geese played in the water while their family members sat along the steps to watch.  no one paid me any mind here.  i was just another person to them and i liked it that way.

down the way is a narrow road that curves along the waterline with shops on one side and alleys on the other that lead through small communities held together by any means necessary.  men were getting shaved in the street while children played cricket or just chased each other with cricket mallets.  after a while the road abruptly ends at the last alley leading down to the rocky shore.  it was a tight squeeze but i followed it anyway.  i was worried that i was intruding but still no one seemed to pay any attention to me.  when i reached the shore i stepped out onto the rocks to get my barrings and noticed several men squatting in the near distance.  then the stench hit me and it didn’t take me long after that to piece together what was happening here.  i was standing in the middle of a toilet and the evidence was all around me.  men come out here to defecate on the rocks and then rinse off in the pools of sea water.  then the tide comes along to wash most of it away and salts the rest to let it bake in the hot sun.  i could see the tall buildings on the horizon at the other end so i decided not to turn back.  if i chose my footing carefully i could reach civilization before sunset.

P1020873luckily i didn’t have to wade in shit the entire way.  a very nice group of intoxicated Indians spotted me, invited me to rest on their rooftop and directed me back to a through street.  before long i was back in the bustle.  i reached Marine Drive again just in time to see the sun set over Malabar Hill.  The Queens Necklace was crowded this time of night.  couples of all kinds strolled along arm in arm and women walked freely in modern attire.  down toward the end i found a modern shopping district with a 3-story mall and movie theater.  to my surprise they had made another Iron Man movie and were showing it in 3D!  the action-packed CG special effects were the perfect capper on the day’s spectrum of events.

heading in the direction i thought was home actually led me into the southern bulbous tip of Colaba which was consumed almost entirely by a military base.   all branches of their military are represented here.  there are barracks, mess halls and arsenals all heavily guarded behind walls with razor wire.  several billboards are on display with catchy slogans like “we climb tall mountains and then our work begins”.  toward the end of the peninsula i could hear the faint but unmistakable sound of Elvis Presley’s rendition of “My Way”.  i love this song.  it also seemed all too fitting to my current situation so i decided to try and follow it to its source. then i hit wall.  i attempted to lift myself up over it to peak at where the music was coming from when i got stopped by an off-duty soldier on a bicycle.  he asked me what i was doing to which i had no good answer.  then he politely told me it was not in my best interest to be in a heavily protected military base at midnight.  i respectfully agreed then quickly hailed the first taxi i could find.

each additional day here was spent doing miniature versions of the above.  waking up, picking a new direction, getting lost then finding my way home again.  i became so invested with mapping out the city from scratch in my mind that i failed to get around to doing some of the more popular tourist activities such as taking a “reality tour” of the Dharavi slums, attending a cricket match and Bollywood-Bollywood-Bollywood! by the end i grew to really admire the place.  i’ve never witnessed contrasts so pronounced and in such close proximities.  everywhere i went i saw historical charm and modern lifestyles glued together by pockets of extreme poverty.  “enchant… humble… repeat” is this city’s chant.

on the 6th day my package finally arrived and i was set free.  farewell Mumbai.  i wish you the best of luck.

note

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temples and time warps

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welcome to Hampi.  a 26 square kilometer spread of temple ruins that date back to the 14th century – it was once the capital of the Vijayanagar empire.  i was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was a one-day-only temple festival happening in the Hampi Bazaar the day i arrived and that i would be staying in the middle of it.  in the center of the bazaar stands a giant ancient temple spire.  next to it stood two tall decorated wooden towers on wheels.  thousands of people gathered in the street.  many of them sold miniature bananas to be thrown at the wooden towers while elephants hauled them along.  squads of policemen marched along side to ensure no one got trampled to death.  there is nothing quite like seeing thousands of elated faces and bananas flying in every which direction.  it was a very joyous event.

once the festival ended the Hampi Bazaar was quiet.  too quiet in fact. sadly the bazaar today is half the bazaar it used to be.  now a UNESCO site, many of the buildings have been bulldozed in the recent years in an effort to preserve the holy land.

P1020758somehow i managed to find the one single-room guest house in town.  this was good for me.  after my authentic Bangalore experience i found myself shying away from other tourists once confronted with them again.

i rented a motorbike (“The Goat Slapper”) and toured all the temple ruins, some nearby towns and did some general traversing of the beautiful bolder strewn desert landscape.  some of the roads that didn’t lead to temples lead along side irrigation canals, many of which were filled with the local people.  i took one road less traveled that looped through a grassy mountain range.  this was a perfect opportunity to belt out the lyrics to Neil Diamond’s “I Am I Said” – a favourite karaoke tune of mine.

the next stop was Gokarna – a beach town 325 kilometers northwest of Hampi.  i decided to take one of those night buses i’ve heard so little about mostly because it was my only option.  the bus was nice enough.  it had a raised curtain covered bed for each passenger who opted for one.  i barely fit in mine.  between the jerkiness of the ride, the sounds of constant honking and the loud jabbering of Indians all around me, it became clear that the only chance i had of getting sleep would be through the use of good old trusty chemicals.  i popped a sleeping pill and cuddled up next to Escapo. luckily he has all the right curves in all the right places.  i focused on my foreign environment until it began to fuzz over.  next thing i know i am bludgeoned awake at 3AM by the sound of the bus driver’s voice yelling “Gokarna!” over and over again.  in less than a minute i am standing outside the bus with all my stuff not in Gokarna but at a bus transfer station 40 kilometers outside of Gokarna.  the driver tells me my new bus will arrive in 10 minutes, then goes inside the attached restaurant to have some tea.  30 minutes and 0 buses later he introduces me to the manager of the restaurant, gives him a wad of rupees then leaves.  ok, i guess i’m this guy’s problem now.  the restaurant manager explains to me in the raspiest voice known to man that my new bus driver didn’t feel like showing up.  since i was the only one transferring to Gokarna it just wasn’t worth his time.  he then offered to put me up in a guest room free of charge then drive me to the local bus stand at 7AM where i can get a local bus to Gokarna from there.  my first reaction was to protest…  pull the ‘i spent money on this, therefore i am entitled to blah’ card, but in reality my options were limited and what the hell was i going to do at my final destination at 4am anyway?  i thankfully took the cards i was dealt and slept a few hours more.  i awake at 9:30AM to a loud knocking on my door.  surprise!.. it’s raspy manager dude again, apologizing for over-sleeping and strongly urging me to “get up, we must go now!”.  without giving the matter any thought i am swiftly out the door and outside with all my stuff packed just in time to sit and stare at him while he washes his car.  doing so with pride and taking his time he used a pint-sized cup and bucket to carefully douse every inch of the surface of his car.  i watched as a servant girl refilled the bucket 3 separate times.  after his car was wet to his satisfaction, he THEN dried the car, THEN he moved onto the interior…  i didn’t want to say anything because A) i was curious how long the charade would continue and B) i knew there was nothing i could have said to change the course of reality.  instead i could only think to myself “that car better be spotless.  if i get in and there’s one speck of dirt i’m gonna be pissed!”

P102080517 hours after i embarked on my journey filled with unexpected delights i finally arrive at OM Beach (6 kilometers from Gokarna actual).  i have been told by many travelers to come to this beach in particular.  a few weeks prior it had been packed with hippies getting stoned and beating on drums around campfires, but when i arrived it was almost deserted.  OM is a one-kilometer stretch of white sand in a partial bay with several rock formations jutting out from it.  cows stroll casually along the beach during the day and chill out around campfires at night, giving it that Far Side comic vibe.  i knew immediately that if i stayed here too long time would start to stand still again.  then it took me the next 6 days to forget it and remember it again.  most of my time here was spent doing…. well… absolutely nothing… or maybe i just can’t remember.  OM will do that to you.  it’s like a quiet unassuming time acceleration bubble with a beach and some cows thrown in.  you pass through it and suddenly you are a year older and you don’t know why.  i am going to assume that my stay here was a splendid one.  while there i befriended several travelers to share the nothing with including a very animated German naturopathic doctor and an Austrian amateur novelist who had been raised by Nazi’s.  i also encountered my very first American since i’ve been in India.

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the next logical step for me at this point is to take the tourist path most traveled and take a short train ride north to Goa to enjoy several more days (or weeks) of time vacuumed beaches but instead i opt for the busy bustle of Mumbai.  a straight shot north covering a distance of 881 kilometers, this will be my longest Indian train ride yet.

i arrive at the tiny train station in Gokarna almost 5 hours early for reasons unknown.  here i am greeted by a cow and the usual amount of Indians giving me curious looks.  not much to do now but sip chai, watch the sun set and carefully study the travel scars that Escapo has sustained over the past weeks.  he is building character by the day.

 

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