Move over, Iceland! There are a range of top holiday places in 2019 that are just as mystifying, spectacular, and culturally-rich as the land of fire and ice. Pack a sturdy pair of shoes – you’re going to need them.
Whether you're going casual or fine dining, there are hidden places around the city that are happy to make you Italian-style pizza with no cheese, Vietnamese soup with no shrimp paste, and pancakes with no milk or eggs. So sit back and feast your eyes! This is the best vegan food in Sydney, and these gems are truly amazing.
If you’ve been told putting on weight is just part of travelling, think again! It is actually possible to remain more or less the same size throughout your trip and save money, and I’m here to tell you how because, in all honesty, I'm a veteran of piling it on while in travel-mode and I successfully figured out how to travel and not gain weight.
I was really excited at the prospect of entering Tallinn, so I don't want to be a wet blanket and rain on my own parade or anything, but if I'm being really honest, I'd have to say navigating the Estonian public transport system at 7am after a 16-hour bus ride from Poland was not something I enjoyed doing. And I enjoy most challenges.
Travelling India has been a strange and grounding experience, and celebrating Holi Festival in India was no exception.
Something that has really surprised me over my time in India is that Indian men will not swear or talk about the thing that happens when men and women hug each other in a very special way, in front of women.
Often people will look at Chris when a swear word or something to do with sex is about to be mentioned and say, "I can’t say it in front of her, but, you know…", and sometimes when we’re in temples, I’m told to go elsewhere while the guide shows Chris ‘man carvings’.
Given the way childbirth works, it's safe to assume women are pretty aware of the ways of the world.
Nevertheless, that's the way it is in India. Of course, this isn't the case with everyone, but my experience has been that men run the show, and women are secondary. The Hindu Holi festival is the perfect example.
Also known as The Festival of Colour, Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The tradition of throwing coloured powder and water is believed to originate with Krishna, the Hindu god depicted with dark blue skin. The story goes that he complained to his mother about his girlfriend's (Radha's) fair skin, so his mother suggested he smear her skin with paint, so now there's a tradition of smearing your loved ones with paint.
And folks, that's what happens. Only it's not just loved ones that get smeared with paint. It's absolutely everyone. You can’t walk down the street without people throwing fists of of dye in all directions, and you'll probably find yourself in the middle of a water-bomb battalion, getting drenched by children with water buckets on rooftops, and running from people who are running for your face – arms outstretched, hands full of dye.
Men roam the streets with gold and silver faces, little boys scream and sprint at anyone and everyone –armed with water pistols loaded with blue. Alcohol, bhang, and opium is quickly consumed, in vast quantities, behind closed doors. Women are nowhere in sight.
After being told the festival was potentially dangerous for tourists in Varanasi, we met up with a few people staying at our hotel, and decided to spend the festival with them. Having stocked up on dye the day before, we armed ourselves with our own festive weaponry, and stepped outside.
After about 10-minutes, it was clear tourists were the primary targets.
Men ran from far and wide to cover the eight of us in colour, mash our faces with pink, scream ‘Happy Holi!’, and turn handshakes in to hugs. This became too popular, and we ran towards the ghats, bumping in to an impromptu water-side rave.
There were large speakers in the middle of the street blasting out the latest Hindi hits, with silver and gold-faced men and boys thrashing to the heavy bass lines, squirting dye at no one in particular, and throwing dye into the air like they just didn’t care.
We ran on, hoping to avoid more crowds, until we bumped in to three more tourists our festival companions had arranged to meet. They had organised to spend the festival with an Indian family who had a place overlooking the ghats, and so we waited. In the open.
Again, we were surrounded by hoards of silver faces, unidentifiable men, shaking our hands, hugging us, trying their darndest to isolate the women of the group.
I want to look back at this experience as some wonderful event where I had the greatest time dancing around to music I didn’t understand with locals, tourists, booze, and loads of dye.
And for the most part, I did.
But I can’t shake the feeling that some things were a bit off. No matter how much fun I had, or how differently I try to think about it, it doesn’t change that the festival isn’t safe for women.
It’s not like the crowds hide their intentions –rules go out the window for Holi and the police can’t intervene because: "it’s Holi festival, where everyone is equal".
But they’re not. There are just no consequences for anything that happens.
The Indian family we’d been waiting for showed up pretty soon after and whisk us away to their rooftop terrace.
From there, we had a great time. It was a large family: two young kids (ruthlessly throwing dye at everyone from the rooftop), two older girls (around 18), three older boys (16-24), and a few cousins.
From their rooftop we were able to properly partake in the festival. We hurled water bombs to the ground floor, tipped buckets on everyone, narrowly avoided being bombed by freakishly strong children on an adjacent rooftop, and watched the festivities unfold. The family blasted some tunes, sprayed everyone with colours, threw water buckets around, and danced Bollywood-style in to the afternoon.
Then we looked out from the roof again, and things were looking pretty different. Too much alcohol, no food shops open for business, no corner stores selling water, and no one with any kind of authority to relieve the situation.
It was just hoards and hoards of drunk men fighting each other. That’s why there were no women in the streets. That’s why those sisters the family we spent the festival with weren’t able to celebrate equality and the triumph of good over evil.
Had this been Australia, people would have celebrated in to the night (or tried to – looking at you Sydney!). In India, the drunken festivities were over by 2pm.
Aside from loads of dye, abandoned t-shirts, piles of rubbish and the usual cow faeces, the streets were empty, and the shops had reopened. So we took that opportunity to have breakfast/lunch/dinner (we hadn’t had a meal all day), bought some beer, and headed back to the hotel with our Holi companions to rid ourselves of festival remnants, and generally debrief, before Chris and I jumped on a train at 2am to Nepal, and spent the next 17-hours travelling on various modes of transport.
Aside from being exhausted after a whole day dancing and escaping, the issue was not only that dye wasn’t really designed to come off skin, but that we didn’t want to get changed for fear of being attacked again and ruining another set of clothes.
So off to the station we went, festival clothes and all. The thing to remember is that while there are lots of bright colours being thrown around, the immense amount of water being tossed about lifts the dirt and excrement from the ground, so you’re not only covered in dye.
By the time we got to the border of India and Nepal, we looked like haggard lepers. Had I been at border control, I wouldn’t have let us in to the country for fear of some contagious tropical plague. But they did, and we caught another bus to Lumbini, before finally washing my hair and making bets with myself as to when my back and face would finally lose their pink and blue hues.
All photos (except the feature and the last four) courtesy of Ruth Anna Photography.
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Even if you're not a traveller, the islands of South East Asia are probably on your bucket list.
The sands are white, the waters are clear, warm and blue, you can dive in the reefs, stay in bungalows, eat local food, lay on the sand, and drink cheap cocktails – anyone who's been to a Thai island will probably recommend it.
Before I begin my tirade in to why you should probably avoid Koh Rong in Cambodia, I should mention that the island does look lovely on face value – the waters are clear, the sands are white, and the beach huts are wooden and picturesque and really nice to sit in, but on the other hand, the island is basically inhabited by tourists.
I'm not really sure why, but I thought Koh Rong would be like a Thai island, and it really wasn't. It was kind of grimy.
If you're in to drinking all day, everyday, you don't care what you eat, and you're not fussed over things like hygiene, you'll probably love Koh Rong – lots of people do, and that's great! I think we were there over some sort of holiday, and one of the festive activities involved drunkenly clawing your way up a greased-up metal pole to reach some cash. If that's what you're in to, stop reading and buy a ticket immediately! For everyone else, here's a bunch of reasons to avoid Koh Rong.
1. Extreme Tourism
I'm not usually someone who cares about 'touristy' spots while travelling (it seems weird to me that some people seem to hate 'touristy' locations when they're tourists themselves...), but in Koh Rong, you can't really walk around and get a taste of local culture because almost everything there exists for tourists. Drunk, sexed-up tourists.
2. Expensive Accommodation
Given how ramshackled the place is (not in an endearing way), accommodation is way more expensive than it needs to be. We're talking big cracks in the walls of bungalows, a lack of mosquito netting (don't care about mosquitoes? Here's why you should!), and just a general lack of basic cleanliness – all this would be fine if it was cheaper, but it ended up costing more than anywhere else we stayed.
3. The Food Is Terrible
If you're in to Khmer food, definitely avoid Koh Rong. All the food joints are run by drunk and/or stoned tourists who (largely) can't cook. If you want local food, forget it – the menus are full of sandwiches and pizzas, and they're greasy enough to put you off bread for life. If you come across somewhere selling 'fresh' fish, you'll get something that's been fried within an inch of its life by one of the aforementioned tourists.
This one is based on personal experience, but after a day or so we noticed the staff at all the hostels and food joints had some kind of infection. They all had a bandaged arm or ankle, and we overheard someone talking about how contagious it was. There was also a human who seemed to have the same skin disease as some of the wild dogs.
So what do you have once you look beyond the accommodation, the food, everyone else who's there, and lack of local culture? A nice beach and not much else.
By the end of three-days, we couldn't wait to get off the island.
If you want to travel to the beaches of Cambodia, I recommend Sihanoukville. If you ignore all the drunk tourists and onslaught of Australians screaming "Koh Rong? More like Koh Right!" in the most ocker accents you've ever heard in your life, and look at the actual beach, it's really quite lovely. Plus, the food is great.
Alternatively, if you're looking for some peace, head to Otres Beach. It's very close to Sihanoukville, but it's the complete opposite – calm, serene, and underpopulated. We spent about five days going to each of the 10 or so cafes and restaurants along the beach, and sat there for hours while I worked online and tried to detox from all the beer we'd been drinking.
If you're looking for actual relaxation, avoid Koh Rong and head to Otres – that's where it's at.
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I'm sitting in a cafe in Kep in April and I’ve honestly never been so hot in my life.
I’m boiling just sitting here, doing nothing. I want to melt. Cold drinks are warm in five-minutes, ice melts in two, and you’re hot again in one. It’s inescapable. Kep in April is kind of horrible. So to console myself, I’ve decided to post about some of the coldest places we’ve been so far: Nepal.
Chris seemed to have this idyllic notion that we’d step across the border from India to Nepal, and birds would instantaneously start chirping amid a picturesque backdrop of snow-capped mountains, prayer flags, butterflies, and fawns. So we got our Nepalese visas and hovered on the Indian side of the border, prepared for the scene to majestically transform from its dusty, loud, uninviting, garbage-laden façade in to a vision of beauty in a Narnia-esque kind of way.
Suffice to say, the two-meters between India and Nepal look somewhat similar.
I would actually go as far as to say they look exactly the same.
At that point, we’d been traveling for so long and still looked like prehistoric rainbows from our Holi festivities, so that was a bit of a blow, and we pottered on to the bus to Lumbini.
Lumbini was interesting purely because it was the birthplace of Buddha, other than that, it was a generically hot and dusty town selling fairly ordinary curry, and a butt-load of alcohol, so we moved on to Pokhara the next evening in a government bus. The trip was supposed to take six-hours, and we got on at 9pm. After making a series of stops to pick up various steel poles, ropes, and tin from dingy alleyways so the driver could make some extra cash on the side, we arrived in Pokhara at three in the morning with no Lonely Planet guide, no map of the area, no general idea of where we were, no idea of where we wanted to go, no way of researching any of these things, and not surprisingly, nothing was open.
Luckily, there were three super-annoying dudes on the bus with us who clearly weren’t tired, laughed relentlessly, and were ready to walk the 5km to the town centre. At 3am. There was no way on Earth I was going to do that walk. When they realised I wanted to catch a taxi, they shrugged and decided to come. So half-an-hour later we're driving around all the closed hotels, until we stumble upon some cops who decided to demand a hotel open early and give us a room. We went to sleep at 4am and woke up at 8am to a very vibrant town.
After two-months of solid travel around a lot of very traditional Indian towns, the touristy town of Pokhara was fantastic. There were about a million coffee shops, bars, and overpriced tourist crap you want but don’t need – it was great. We could have stayed there for a week, but the constant fear of running out of time was too stressful, so we caught one of the 20 tourist buses the next day to Kathmandu.
We kind of expected the Pokhara bus station to be somewhat like Indian bus stations – full of food vendors carrying baskets full of deep fried curry balls, angrily yelling SAMOSA, CHAPATTI, CHAI, COFFEE ,CHAI, CHAI around a mass of open grills. Pokhara still had food vendors walking around with baskets of food, but to cater to the western masses, they were yelling things like CINNAMON SCROLL, CROISSANT, CHOCOLATE – something that would never happen in India.
It was seven in the morning, I was exhausted, and found it hysterical. The poor guy with the basket I bought my pastry from couldn’t work out why – he looked a little afraid.
Kathmandu is where the fawns and butterflies popped up. The cool temperatures made it everything you think Nepal should be, and more. Still loving tourist dens, we walked all over the western stomping grounds to cozy restaurants, bars, and cafes, selling everything from burgers, to mojitos, to pancakes, to Tibetan thukpa.
It. Was. Bliss.
There were thunderstorms and everything. We bought a little wooden magnetic chessboard and played it in cafes while the thunder and lightening raged outside. The great thing about chess and beer is that, if you’re losing, all you have to do is lift your hand and mash the board. That way you don’t lose, and everyone’s too beer'd to do anything about it. Win.
So Chris got sick of playing chess with me and we moved on to Nargarkot for three-days to see some Himalayas. Sadly, there was too much mist to see any mountains, but we liked it up there anyway. It reminded us a bit of Dharamsala (which we loved), so it was kind of ok – apparently it’s really clear in November.
So we frolicked around there to celebrate Chris putting up with my chess antics for three-years, before going back to Kathmandu for a night and having beers at the Hookah lounge with our new Japanese friend, Kei (who, due to a translation error, we accidentally sent to a hooker lounge…sorry, Kei). And that pretty much sums up our two-weeks in Nepal.
Even after explaining all that, I haven’t forgotten that I’m stifling.
I hope that wherever you are, you are cold. If you're thinking of heading to Kep in April, I advise against it.
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I've never been scammed like I was in Cambodia.
To be fair, I don't mind paying more at markets and things like that – what's a small amount of money to me can be a lot to someone else, so I'm ok with it, as long as the price isn't exorbitant. What I'm not fine with is being lied to and totally screwed over. If I learnt anything about getting around Cambodia, it was to double-check all transport-related information.
Our trip to Ban Lung was probably the icing on the cake.
There's a lake in Ban Lung that's so round and deep it was supposedly formed by a meteorite years and years ago, so naturally, we really wanted to see it. Mistake number one was going to any old travel agency in Siem Reap.
In India, you can walk in to the sketchiest looking place and book a bus or train that will leave from where they say, when they say. This does not happen in Cambodia.
They said we would be on a big bus (not an over-populated minibus) with air-con, and the whole trip would take five hours. We got on a large bus the next day that had air-con, and a few mosquitoes flying around, and proceeded to travel south instead of east.
The powers-that-be only seemed to understand English when it suited them, so we gave up asking where we were going after a while, realised there was really nothing we could do, and sat there for five-hours travelling in the wrong direction. We were eventually left with a few other tourists at a road-side eatery (in Krong Kampong Chnang, wherever that is) and basically told to shut up and eat some fish soup for an hour while a mini bus came and got us.
It was on this minibus that we discovered we were the only ones going to Ban Lung, and all other tourists were going to Laos. The people in charge told us we would be heading north again, and given that Laos is north from where we were, it seemed pretty likely that's where we were going. Our luggage was strapped to the back of the van (despite everyone's protests), and off we went for another seven hours.
When it got dark, the drivers (who could now miraculously speak English) piped up and said they hadn't been instructed to go to Laos or Ban Lung, and stopped in Stueng Traeng where there was a hotel owner conveniently waiting to take people to his hotel. While everyone else went with him, Chris and I refused, and went to find our own hotel up the road after being assured there would be a bus to take us to Ban Lung the next day.
By this point, we were pretty annoyed. Paying higher prices at a market, for transport or hotels is to be expected, but dealing with two-days of unplanned travel and total uncertainty in a foreign country when no one will give you any information is completely different.
After a lot of questioning, the bus driver's eventually gave us the name of the man who orchestrates these operations (Jed), put him on the phone, and Jed hung up immediately. We were very close to calling off the rest of the trip to look for him and bring justice to tourists everywhere.
The bus did show up the next day (albeit three-hours after it was supposed to), and we arrived in Ban Lung three-hours later. What should have been a five-hours morning trip turned in to a 15-hours odyssey spanning two-days. Wherever Jed is, I'm pretty sure he has more money than I'll ever have in my life.
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As much as I wanted Angkor to be a highlight, I really didn't feel that way at the time. It's a must-see place and I'm so glad I went, but I do not recommend seeing it the way we did. It’s suggested that you see the temples over five days. We did it in two. We also decided to rent bicycles for $4/day instead of paying $25 to get chauffeured around for the day. Unless you're a pro-cyclist who maybe does it in tropical climates all day, every day, always take the chauffeur.
I hadn't ridden a bike in years, and I don't think we really thought about how far it really is around those temples – it's not just Angkor Wat, it's basically a city full of temples and monuments that are all kilometres apart. There's no shade, and at that time of year there's no escaping the heat and humidity. I calculated we'd ridden about 48km on day one. It's about 8km from Siem Reap to Angkor, so you've been going for quite a while before you've even seen a temple.
At that point in time (before I got sick), I had never been in such muscular pain in my life, so when Chris decided he desperately needed to get to Angkor Wat at 5am the next day to see the sun rise, I nearly cried.
It was a morning of misery and woe. I don’t know why we didn’t get a chauffeur for the second day – possibly because we figured we’d already biked the first half so we could do it again. My legs were still burning from the previous day, I was having trouble standing upright, and even at 5am, the humidity was unrelenting. We visited where Tomb Raider was filmed and ogled at everything for another 45km, before arriving back at about 5pm and feeling excruciatingly happy it was over.
I think the worst thing about being so outrageously hot you want to fall in a heap and waste away slowly is that all the locals are dressed from head to toe in jeans, turtlenecks, jumpers, jackets, scarves and hats. The few we spoke to said it’s to keep their skin white (even though they’re in so many layers no one would ever know), but they weren’t sweating or anything. I was a burning red mess.
After that experience, I think I have to go again, but maybe in January next time. The heat and humidity really killed it for me – I can't explain how all-consuming it is, but unless you're from SE Asia, somewhere near the equator, or you just love the heat, I really don't recommend visiting after February. If you want to know when to go, check out my Cambodia Travel Guide.
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One of the central reasons anyone should come to India is for the food. It's rich, creamy, spiced, and complex – Indian food is like nothing else on Earth, and you haven’t tried it until you’ve eaten it in India. Someone said to me ‘Indians love sugar and spice’, and it’s absolutely true. When ordering coffee, I’ve had to start asking for sugar on the side because I literally cannot fathom how or why you would/could put that much sugar in a single cup of coffee.
The desserts are basically cardamom and turmeric-infused lumps of sugar – both amazing, and mind-blowingly sweet. Gulab Jamun (one of their national desserts) is a sugar/curd ball that is both deep-fried in, and served with, sugar syrup. They don’t care about waistlines, cholesterol, or portion control, here it’s all about the taste, and if that means putting a lump of ghee in with a lump of oil, so be it. You’ll grow fat, but you’ll do it with relish. If it feels like there’s an earthquake in Sydney on 15 May, don’t stress, I’ve just re-entered the country.
For the time being, our culinary adventures have taken us from Jaisalmer to Amritsar: The hectic Sikh city of the north. This place has everything. Free accommodation, free food*, dagger shops, gun shops, shoe shops, female turban wearing Anglo-Saxon Sikhs, Punjabi thali, an extravagant amount of cycle rickshaws, and the incredible Golden Temple.
While Amritsar had some amazing qualities, and the Golden Temple was fabulous and beautiful and everything you think it’ll be and more, a major highlight was the Indian/Pakistani boarder ceremony. According to Lonely Planet, 'the purpose of the ceremony is to lower the national flag and formally close the border for the night' – but it is so, so much more than that. First of all, the whole thing’s done across two amphitheaters with a large gate dividing the two countries in the centre. We got there and a huge crowd of Indian women were dancing Bollywood-style in front of the masses, who were cheering raucously as the fifth chorus of Jai Ho exploded from the speakers. If you look left, you can kind of see the gate at the boarder, and Pakistan side of things.
This went on for a while, as more and more people entered the venue and scrambled to find seats, until an Indian MC started chanting crowd-pleasing chants with a megaphone, and a Pakistani MC started chanting crowd-pleasing chants with a megaphone, and I realised there were hoards of people on both sides of the boarder, patriotically yelling 'Hindustan!', 'Pakistan!' while a bunch of soldiers (oiled moustaches, flourished turbans, and starched uniforms galore) march theatrically, with comical seriousness, towards the border, stomping with such rigor you find yourself checking that the heels of their shoes are still in tact.
They put ballerinas to shame with the magnitude of their high-kicks, as each side tries to outdo each other in cheers, marches, and chants.
Having grown up hearing about the tensions between India and Pakistan, it’s kind of surreal to see such a cohesive and uplifting display between the two nations – this happens every evening.
The next day we moved on to the Golden Temple, which was pretty spectacular. You can’t enter with shoes, or without a scarf of some kind covering your head, and there is an hour-long wait to get in to the temple itself, but it really is worth it, and it’s not like you get bored.
There are some killer-tunes playing through the loudspeakers (coming live to you from a band inside the temple), the crowd sporadically burst in to song, and since people only abide by the queuing method here because they are surrounded by water and physically cannot go beyond the limitations of land, someone behind you will almost definitely poke you in the back for the duration of your wait, so it’s best to think of this as a free massage.
From Amritsar we jumped on three state buses to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala – official residence of the Dalai Lama at the foot of the Himalayas. It was beautiful and freezing. I had to buy another sweater, Chris got some super-socks, we drank beer, ate pizza and momo (Tibetan dumplings), chatted to other tourists, and generally wondered around thoroughly enjoying the place, wishing we could stay all week. The Dalai Lama himself wasn’t there, but we went to the monastery where he resides, spun the prayer wheels the man himself has spun, watched a ceremony, and wandered the grounds.
As great as the monastery was, the highlight was the Tibetan museum, located in the complex. Dharamsala is a refuge for Tibetans who have fled their homeland due to the Chinese occupation. I don’t know what I expected from that museum, it seems ridiculous to expect anything else in hindsight, but I didn’t expect it to detail the horrors of the Chinese invasion.
There are huge boards with photographs, names, ages, occupations, and dying words of a lot of the people who have set themselves on fire in protest of the destruction of both their country, and their people. There are maps, diagrams, and photographs of what Tibet used to look like, how big the country was prior to invasion, and details of how the people have been dispossessed, oppressed, tortured, starved, and how their culture is being destroyed.
I knew of the Chinese occupation, and the Free Tibet movement, but not in detail. If you’re up there, it’s definitely worth a visit, and generally getting involved in the movement regardless of where you are.
From Dharamsala we took a particularly awful overnight bus to Rishikesh: Yoga land.
After trying to sleep sitting up from 7:30pm to 6:30am, and wandering around for an hour trying to find a hotel with a vacancy, it’s very difficult to listen to porridge-eating, sitar-playing, ‘spiritually enlightened’ tourists go on about how in to new age healing they are, and how they reached the deepest form of meditation ('for five-minutes I was there, deep in meditation, I was really there and it was amazing') without face-planting my food.
But after a night of solid sleep, we grew to enjoy it. Rishikesh is situated around the Ganges with some great cafes, massage centres, and people – we could have stayed there for a while. It’s extremely touristy, but endearing. Everyone there is very pro-life and active, it’s kind of contagious, and to be honest, it is nice to eat porridge for breakfast instead of dal and naan.
As our time in India draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things we’ve learned, and the most prominent day-to-day thing has been that impatience truly is a way of life.
No one waits in line, drives with caution, or cares what is fair and who’s been waiting longer. It’s every soul for themselves. I used to be apologetic but, as we travel, I’m finding that I increasingly don’t give a damn. For reasons I can’t begin to comprehend, a lot of Indian people try to get sneaky photos of us at temples and general tourist attractions. It actually happens frequently, and I used to ignore it, but when it happened today I found myself saying ‘what are you doing?!’ loudly. With feeling.
Last week we were in a blanket/scarf/trinket shop full of tourists, and this (tourist) woman had some of those small music symbols (the ones played in movies by busking monkeys in red vests) and she just kept clanging them together. Shamelessly. She didn't even care. She didn’t work there, she wasn’t selling anything, there was no rhythm to it, she was just banging them together, until I said ‘I’m going to break her hands in a second’.
I had intended to say it quietly, but it didn’t come out quietly. It actually came out with more vigour that I thought I had at that point I time. She stopped. We left. I wasn’t sorry. I’m still not. After four months of being ruthless and giving no damns, I’m going to get back and make enemies with the whole of Sydney. I apologise in advance for all the innocent people I’m yet to elbow.
*One of the great things about Amritsar is that despite all the expensive accommodation around the Golden Temple, the venue offers free accommodation and food for pilgrims and tourists – people come from all over just to be here, even if it means they have to sleep on the floor outside. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The rooms are very basic, but the beds are comfortable and warm, and you can stay for up to two nights.
Free. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are in a large hall where you sit on the floor, hold out your plate, and people come around with giant vats of curry and whack it on your plate, and you can have as much as you like. Then you go outside and get steaming hot chai out of these enormous metal tanks. This place serves 60,000 to 80,000 people per day. It’s all vegetarian, and it’s all great.
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If you ever go to India, Rajasthan is where you want to be.
It’s vibrant, colourful, and totally absorbing with bright textiles, sunshine, smiles, and coffee lining the streets. The abundance of rooftop cafes, beautiful hotels, food, and markets will have you transfixed, and if that isn’t enough, the amount of ancient temples and palaces is almost enough to make you want to abandon your plans and live there for the rest of your trip.
While Udaipur was my favourite place because it's so unique and great and I just loved it, the rest of Rajasthan has also been unforgettable.
Over the last week, we’ve gone from jumping around the monkey-infested ruins of Bundi Palace channeling Mogali, seeing the Ghats of Pushkar, and taking a tour around Jodhpur’s incredible Mehrangarh fort (often described as the most magnificent in India), to drinking the world famous Makhaniya lassi at the Mishrilal Hotel, to staying inside Jaisalmer fort, and riding out in to the sunrise on an overnight camel safaris. Rajasthan is where it’s at.
But of all those experiences, I’d have to say the camel safari was the most exciting. Not because the trip included riding camels out into the Thar desert by sunrise, roasting chapattis over the fire, watching the sun set over sand dunes, or sleeping under the stars of Rajasthan, but because it all went wrong.
It was all booked and paid for, and we did spend about 14-hours trekking out into the desert on camels while eating amazing food, getting sore legs, watching deer sprint in all directions, battling hungry sheep, drinking Kingfisher from a 15-year-old beer monger (who just so happened to pop in...in the middle of the desert...), listening to the guides sing to the beat of a water drum, watching fighter jets patrol the Indian boarder, and setting up camp 70km from Pakistan – so that part went well, but there was a solid decline in the mood when some army guys showed up.
I would actually go as far as to say it killed the mood.
They were all speaking Hindi, so it was difficult to discern what was actually going on, particularly because the guides kept telling us it was fine, and the Indian tourist doing the safari with us was saying it was pretty far from fine. Turns out that part of the desert is a sanctuary that requires both an entry and a camping permit.
The guides were saying they had permits, while the army guys were all like ‘you don’t so we’re going to fine you’, the guides were going ‘if we pay the fine can we stay?’, and army guys said ‘not unless you pay a bigger fine’, and the guides said ‘that’s ridiculous, we have a permit’, and then the army guys were saying something about a hunting permit and we got confused.
I'm unsure as to what actually happened, but I thought it was odd that they were saying the Lonely Planet-recommended safari company had been doing their dealings illegally for 23-years. The manager of the company also said they deposit their permit fees every month without fail, and the temporary permits the army gave us after we paid the fines were actually hunting permits – written in Hindi so we couldn’t read them.
It all looked pretty suss from the outside – official-looking guys show up demanding money and saying the word ‘court’ a lot, even though the company had permits. As a group, we decided to leave.
Since that was our accommodation for the night, we went back to the guesthouse attached to the safari tours hoping they’d give us a place to stay, and the manager was very accommodating and apologetic. He gave us a room and water free of charge, and said he’d give us a refund for the safari if we wanted.
Despite what happened, the guides were really fantastic, and the camel ride through the sand dunes was something we’ll never forget, so it was well worth it, and today my legs, back muscles and stomach muscles have decided they don’t want to function normally, so riding camels the next day probably would have been less enjoyable anyway. We woke up, asked for half our money back, and decided to spend the day eating cake.
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Three weeks backpacking India...
From Kanyakumari we finally moved out of Tamil Nadu and in to Kerala: the land of many beaches. The beaches are picturesque, the beer is flowing, the water is warm, and that all would have been great if I wasn't sick, but it was great nonetheless.
We stayed there for two-days sipping juice in this massive (massively cheap) two-room apartment, staring at the beach while eating fish, before catching the bus to Alleppey: houseboat land.
A valid attempt to get on a houseboat was made, but at the end of the day it was 6,000 rupees for one night on a boat, or 6,000 rupees for six-nights elsewhere, so after speaking to some French tourists at our hotel (Cherukara Nest: I highly recommend it), we did a canoe tour of the famed Kerala backwaters instead, which is organised by Cherukara Nest.
The tour involved breakfast and lunch at a family home containing possibly the most confident, intelligent, and forth coming 11-year-old I’ve ever met. Sanjeev aspires to be a women’s Ayurvedic doctor, likes to sing, and has spent the last seven-years speaking to tourists and subsequently learning nine languages.
Straight after the canoe tour we were on a bus to Fort Kochi: a small fishing town full of home stays and Christian festivals. Our main introduction to Kochi involved being stuck in a bus behind two giant parades, and witnessing many religious celebrations in brightly-lit churches on the side of the road, which seemed to attract hundreds.
It was here that we stayed with two Swiss girls (who had crazy eyes – crazy eyes are a thing, and they had them), saw giant Chinese fishing nets, and had a truly amazing curry while being eaten to death by mosquitoes.
I bought a skirt, we saw a traditional Indian dance, then got on a ‘semi-sleeper’ bus to Mysore at 11:30pm from the side of a highway. It was on this trip that I combated motion sickness with beers and Travelcalm (do it – you’ll sleep for hours), and woke up in what is said to be ‘the soul of the south’.
We saw the famous Palace, went to one of the nicest bazaars we’ve been to yet, I made a stellar stick of incense (“I’ve seen lots of tourists make incense, but never as good as you” – incense-making teacher guy, who totally doesn't say that to everyone), and we drank lots of beer while making important decisions about our trip.
We decided to catch a bus along a pothole-infested road for two-hours (I spent most of the trip in the air. I'm not joking.) to Bylakuppe, seeing the Buddhist Golden Temple (carrying 65L bags), then getting back on that bus to Kushalnagar (interestingly, the road conditions didn't change in those few hours, so again I spent it in the air), changing there for a bus to Hassan (road conditions still didn't improve), and changing there for a bus to Halebid where, again, we were really just paying for airspace because none of it was spent sitting down. We don’t make decisions with beer anymore.
Halebid: don’t get there at night. It’s a tiny, dusty town with not much in the way of streetlights, making it kind of terrifying to arrive in after dark. It’s only real claim to fame is the absolutely spectacular temple in the middle of town which makes it well worth the trip. It’s all made of soapstone, and was constructed using the locking method – without bonding materials like cement – and it’s still standing.
It’s by far the most intricately carved temple we’ve seen to date.
We then caught a bus back to Hassan (don’t sit at the back of the bus or you'll fly), an old lady told me my clothes were too revealing (I was wearing long sleeves…), we visited a tourist office for an hour trying to figure out how to get to Hampi, and took an impromptu trip to Bangalore: India’s technological capital.
We saw palaces, parks, forts, huge doors, went to a rooftop restaurant, looked around, drank $2.50 rum, ate like Maharajas, looked around some more, bought nothing, and got on an overnight train to Hampi with a very inquisitive family of three.
The father had been to the U.S and Europe so had an idea of the kind of place Australia might be (which was a refreshing experience), and told us about Hampi and various other places. The mother didn’t speak much English, the daughter (15?) apparently watched me sleep, and Hampi was lovely. It’s a tourist den, but a nice villagy one surrounded by hundreds of temples and monuments.
They said to see it all in three days. We did it in one. On a motorbike. 'Tired' doesn't even come close. “Climb the mountain with me,” Chris said. “It can be your birthday present to me”, he said.
So we climbed the mountain, met around 13 monkeys, Chris tried to scare the monkey away, the monkey stole my water bottle from Chris’s hand, the monkey started sizing Chris up, we retreated from that part of the mountain, fearless-monkey-passing-warrior-girl (or strange-and-oblivious-laughing-girl who didn't even notice the monkeys, depending on how you look at it) came down the mountain, we stashed away the remaining water bottle, gathered strength and fearlessly passed the monkeys to get to the temple on top of the mountain, watched the sunset from said mountain, climbed down mountain, and I rode a motorbike.
We met Bernadette and Mira – a mother and daughter from Switzerland, chatted to them for a while, ate the best vegetable paratha on planet Earth, and met them again at 5:30 the following morning on the train station en route to Goa – the trip that will forever be remembered as that time Chris’s birthday happened on a train.
He agrees it was a great experience full of late transport, train food vendors, seedy men, lukewarm chai, three-hour bus rides, and the worst samosas to date, but we got to beautiful Palolem to see the sunset and eat whole snapper by the water with $2.50 cocktails.
We stayed in bungalows and wiled the day away with coffee, breakfast, clothes shopping, and hammocks, then left after two nights in an overnight ‘sleeper’ bus to Mumbai: Worst. Trip. Ever. The bus is set out like a set of double bunk beds in the bus, and we were on the upper level. Took Travelcalm too early, sans beer – bad idea.
Felt weirdly tired, out of it, and kind of drunk for the whole 15-hours, and Chris just couldn’t sleep. The roads weren’t great, so you’d wake up to find yourself in mid-air, knowing your back was going to hurt within seconds, and knowing there was nothing you could do to stop it. So we got off the bus feeling exhausted, and in the middle of nowhere.
Turns out the bus didn’t go all the way in to Mumbai, so taxis were conveniently placed at the ‘dropping point’ (the side of a highway) asking for extortionate prices to get into the city. All the hotels on our list were full and/or extremely expensive, so we spent about two-hours walking the streets of Mumbai with huge bags, trying to find a hotel.
Eventually we stumbled across one for 3,000 rupees/night, and decided we could only afford to stay in Mumbai for one night. Everything is supremely expensive in that city. Beautiful, but expensive.
It’s full of old gothic architecture from the days of the British Raj – walking through the city is like stepping through time. We had breakfast/lunch in a cafe swarming with tourists. We were seated up the back in front of a mirror lining the entire back wall – a mirror which we soon noticed had an enormous bullet hole. Turns out we were in Leopolds – a popular tourist den where the 2008 terrorist shoot-out occurred. People died. It was on the news. We sat there and chatted over coffee.
We then headed to the ‘Gateway of India’ where the monolithic Taj Palace Hotel stands looking out onto the horizon. We later found out that’s where the terrorist attacks begun, half the Taj was destroyed, hundreds of people died. That was on the news too. Despite all that, it is beautiful to look at, and they’ve since gone to town with the security.
We spent a large portion of the next morning in one of the many French patisseries Mumbai has to offer, eating cakes, scrambled eggs, and biscuits for Valentines Day, before I went into a shop looking for a descent punjabi to wear around, came out with a Kermit the Frog singlet from the menswear section, and headed off on the train to Aurangabad: the trip where Chris made many, many new friends.
While Indian people pronounce my name as ‘Salad’ without batting an eyelid, they have strange reactions to Chris, or ‘Krish’, as they pronounce it. These reactions range from mildly confused expressions, to loudly vocalising, “What a stupid name”. We originally thought it was because it’s an abbreviation of the Hindu god Krishna, but no. Chris’s train friends informed us ‘Krrish’ is actually an Indian superhero, with shoulder-length dark hair, and pale-ish skin – like Chris. Having a name like 'Krrish' is the Bollywood equivalent of having a name like 'Batman'.
Nevertheless, the guys on the train were fascinated with him. Questions ranged from ‘what is your salary?’ to ‘how long do you bathe for?’, until half the carriage was watching in fascination, as Chris tried to go about explaining the value of the Australian dollar and why we're not all millionaires, and the duration of his showers.
We finally got to Aurangabad, stayed in a less-than-ok hotel, had what I'm pretty sure was the greatest thali ever, the biggest dosa known to human-kind, and visited 12th Century caves the next day in Ellora – a trip which is definitely worth doing. Like Hampi, there are a lot of carvings to see, but you actually can do them in about a day.
From there, we moved north to Udaipur. We were hoping to catch a train straight there, but no, the transport system doesn’t allow for that, so we caught a 14-hour overnight bus to Ahmedabad. Got there at 9:30am, had to catch a train from there to Updaipur at 11pm.
We would have explored Ahmedabad, but we were exhausted, and it took the auto rickshaw driver two-hours to figure out that he didn’t know where the student internet cafe we wanted to go to was, so we ended up at ‘Four Point’ – the very obliging fancy-pants hotel restaurant that let us sit there for 11-hours using power-points and internet. It was great.
After travelling almost everyday for so long, it was great to sit somewhere, order coffees, catch up on whatever was happening in the rest of the world (the Olympics are on?), and not have to rush off anywhere.
The food was also pretty fantastic, and their coffee came with biscuits. Win.
We got to the train station at about 10pm, found our platform, got on the train early to ensure no one took our seats (though the seating is ‘reserved’, it happens frequently), went to sleep and woke up freezing. Multiple times. Everyone else had blankets and we were jealous. We had jumpers, long sleeve things, and socks, but it wasn’t enough so we were just cold until we finally got to Udaipur at 9:30am.
We spent the day eating cake and looking at leather-bound notebooks, leather bags, shoes, jewellery, saris, and buying blankets and clothes (for the next train trip...), before going to this amazing Indian-fusion restaurant (vegan and gluten-free options are on the menu). We had Indian tacos, vegan curry with stuffed potato, garlic wheat chapattis, hyderbadi biryani, and beer. It was amazing. For the first time in two-days, we slept in a bed that wasn’t moving. Nukkad Guest House is the bomb – fork out for the rooms at the top, it's absolutely worth it.
Congrats on reading this far! You deserve some kind of medal.
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After realising trains from Madurai to Kanyakumari only left at ridiculous hours of the morning, we visited Madurai's famous Meenakshi Amman Temple at 8pm the night before we left. It was beautifully-carved, with tiny rooms and alcoves where miniature deities stood decorated in fabric and trinkets, with Hindu's gathering around each one to give offerings and worship their gods.
It has been kind of amazing to see just how many Indian tourists are in Tamil Nadu – they come from miles around, with school groups or families, to see these ancient structures and pay tribute. Because they tend to travel for religious reasons, whenever we tell an Indian person we're visiting their country for the sake of tourism, they generally don't understand.
Q: "Why did you come to India?"
A: "We're interested n exploring the country."
Q: "But why did you come?"
A: "Tourism, that kind of thing."
Q: "Do you study here?"
Q: "You don't study here?"
Q: "So...what do you do?"
Tourism for the sake of tourism doesn't appear to be something Indians generally do on an international scale, but none of the functioning temples we've seen so far have any non-Indian tourists, so it was a bit of a surprise when we got to Meenakshi Amman to find a large (Swedish?) group, two Americans, and a few Spaniards. The American pair told us there was some amazing congregation happening at 9pm, so we stuck around, and sure enough, some amazing congregation happened at 9pm.
A very loud instrument started. I'm sure I'm offending millions, but I want to call it an oboe – it looked like one, but sounded like bagpipes...or a kazoo...I'm going to call it 'loud instrument'. Loud instrument was followed by some kind of hand-held chariot adorned with flowers and incense, carried by the priests of the temple.
There were many people following the chariot around the giant stone pillars of the temple, and it would have been incredible to watch, had I not just reached the climax of my illness. I'm unsure as to whether this next part actually happened, or if I passed out, hit my head too hard and dreamed it, but here's how I think it went down:
Loads of people followed loud instrument to an in-temple lake where they started burning and fanning leaves, or incense, or both. I remember an older man seemed to want my head on a pike because, from what I gather, my skin wasn't covered enough (the only skin showing was the very top part of my chest, my neck, face, and fingers... but even so, I had a very obvious fever at that point so, had I been wearing a scarf, it would have come off pretty fast).
Everything got very smoky. I nearly passed out. Chris looked concerned. Loud instrument played on. More things were burned. Whatever was in the chariot was brought out. Hindus and tourists moved around the chariot. I sat down. People smiled at me. Chris looked concerned. I got sicker. There was more smoke. I nearly threw up. Loud instrument stopped. People dispersed. Chris looked concerned.
I threw up.
The temple closed.
The next thing I really remember is checking out of the hotel around 5am, then watching the sunrise on Madurai train station waiting for the 6:35am train to Kanyakumari.
The train trip was long and somehow, amid the screaming babies, mothers, food vendors, and the unforgettably monotone voice of a man shouting "coffee" every five-minutes, I fell asleep and woke up three-hours later to a very inquisitive family of cricket-enthusiasts.
"Where is your place?"
The youngest of the family then started reciting some kind of cricket transcript, as he was coaxed into remembering the English version by his very enthusiastic father.
They seemed to enjoy practising their English on us, and were generally interested in Australia as a place. They were particularly in how much things cost, so we finally managed to effectively communicate to someone in this country how not all Australians are rich, and why that is the case. Saying something as simple as a kilo of rice can be up to 300INR (5.50AUD) put things in perspective, and we kept going until they were kind of bewildered at how simple things (like lunch at 1,000INR) can come at such a great expense.
They gave us some advice on India (beware of liars, thieves, ect), said they'd been on trains since Kolkata to get to Kanyakumari, and how they were planning on venturing around Kerala for two weeks, until the train finally stopped at 11:40am and we parted ways.
Kanyakumari's only real draw cards are:
a) Tt's right on the southern point of India;
b) Gandhi's ashes were kept there, and
c) the sun rises and sets over three seas.
Otherwise, it's just another touristy, rubbish-clad town with overpriced resorts. They could capitalise on spectacular views, but they choose to build resorts behind other resorts with frosted windows...each to their own.
What could be a really beautiful area is covered in rubbish, bell-ringing fairy floss vendors, wildly-persistent counterfeit sunglasses salesmen, and a vast array of stuff you don't want or need.
This one guy was desperate for me to buy a plastic (and not so attractive) necklaces in pastel pink and white.
Man: "Take these <holds three necklaces> 500 rupees."
Me: "No thanks."
Man: "Ok 400."
Man: "Ok 300."
Me: "I'm really not interested."
Man: "Fine, 100."
Me: "Ok, no, I really don't want to."
Man: "100 is cheap."
Me: "Yes, but I'm not interested."
<second necklace vendor approaches>
Other Man: "You should buy the necklaces. Cheap." <nods>
Me: "...No I really don't want to."
Man: "Come on, buy them. One-hundred, how much do you want them for?"
Me: "It's not about price, I just..."
Man: "Then take them, 100."
Me: "I'm sure there are hundreds of other people here who would love some necklaces, but I really don't."
When we got up to leave they (reluctantly) got the picture, and we got back to staring at the three seas, waiting for the sun to set. I know he was really desperate to sell them, and I felt terrible, but if I bought everything because I felt the vendor needed the cash, my funds would dwindle significantly and I'd have no space in my bag.
If you ignore all the people throwing their rubbish into the ocean like it'll just disappear, it was kind of nice. There's something satisfying about making it to the very tip of the country to watch the sun set over The Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean all at the same time, knowing I'll be at the very top of the country in six-weeks time.
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It's day 12 and I'm lying on a bed in a small hotel in Madurai surrounded by juice, muesli bars, and canned fruit, fighting the urge to throw up. Again.
I feel as though this was inevitable, but I didn't think it would happen this soon...it leaves a whole 14-weeks for it to happen again. Well, damn. Chris was violently ill two-days ago, and we did think it was lunch in Kodaikanal (this sweet yogurt thing we accidentally ordered), but since I now seem to have the exact same thing, we're thinking it was the school children we met later that day.
We'd decided to go sightseeing around Kodaikanal and went to this one lookout that was supposed to be particularly impressive. The second we got there we were surrounded by these kids (age 12?) on a class trip from Kerala, and they were fascinated by us. Overtly fascinated. I still can't really tell you what the view looked like.
Chris was immediately surrounded by a thousand boys, and I was fighting my way around a large group of girls, all asking questions like 'what's your father's name?', 'what's your mother's name?', 'do you have sisters or brothers?', 'what are their names?', where is your place?', 'what is your good name?', inching closer and closer with each question until I was right on the edge of the stairs.
Every time I looked up I was surrounded by a hoard of giant brown eyes and big smiling faces beaming at me from all directions, and the teacher seemed just as fascinated. He said they'd never met Australians so it was exciting for all, and asked just as many questions as they did. After a bunch of photographs, he finally shepherded them along, and we tried to leg the two metres to the lookout before being immediately interrupted by a bunch of guys waving their cameras.
"Where are you from?"
That happens a lot, and I can never bring myself to say I'd sooner watch paint dry than a game of cricket, but these guys were really just in it for the photos. I've now starred in more photos in 12-days than I think I have in my entire life.
In Australia, people frequently tell me to get a tan, and it's difficult to explain that I don't keep my Frosty The Snowman shade of paste out of choice. I burn within about five-minutes, and it never ends in a tan. I once got sunburnt on an aeroplane. An aeroplane. Tanning just isn't in my genetics, and at home, that's considered kind of weird.
In India, it's almost considered royalty. They aspire to be whiter. Every skin product in their supermarkets has some form of whitening agent in it, and everyone in the media is an unnatural shade of pale. In short, it's the reason for all these photographs.
And it's not just a 'quick snap' (as they say) and we're on our way, everyone has to get a photograph, so you end up standing there for about 15-minutes before the next group comes along and seizes the opportunity. And you have to shake everyone's hand, which is also possibly how we got sick.
After all that, we finally got to the lookout and there were a bunch of monkeys there.
They look harmless enough, but they steal your stuff, spread rabies, and are generally terrifying, so we had to hang back until they disappeared. In the end, we looked over the edge for two-minutes before deciding to head back for fear of being photographed again.
Two hours later, Chris was sick.
Two days later, I'm sick.
And we're now hanging in Madurai for much longer than necessary because last time I tried to venture outside I suddenly felt so ill and overwhelmed I had to go back to my room and sleep for two-hours. We haven't even managed to get to the temple yet (the focal point of Madurai), and the thought of eating curry again makes me want to rip out my spleen.
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We have decided to shake things up by travelling to another location daily so we can cram more stuff in to this already gargantuan trip, so I haven’t had a huge amount of time to write. I will fill you in on what we’ve been doing over the last few days, but thought I’d start with where we are now, so until then…Greetings from Kodaikanal! The city on top of the hill.
Yesterday was our first real ‘if we don’t get on the connecting bus we may not find another one for an uncomfortably long period of time’ experience. So we left Trichy after some morning temple viewing, uncertain as to exactly how the day would pan out, somehow found a bus to Dindigul, and sat on it for 2.5-hours feeling kind of worried about the next phase of the trip.
We stayed up late the night before figuring out how we’d do the Trichy-Kodaikanal-Mumbai-Kanyakumari journey, and it seemed like the logical option do it in that order, given the accessibility of transport from one place to another, but we’d read loads of different things about how to get to Kodaikanal so we just kind of left and hoped for the best. After getting off at Dindigul bus depot, we raced around asking various conductors where our bus left from, vaguely worried they’d laugh and say something like ‘you can’t get to Kodaikanal from here’, but they were very helpful and pointed to an already moving bus.
From the many hours of bus travel I’ve done over the last week, I’ve learned that stopping the bus for passengers is more of an irritating formality, so we jumped on that moving bus and continued on to Kodaikanal with a driver who was itching to kamikaze in to pretty much anything. We were swerving to the right hand side of the road around auto rickshaws, motorcycles, vans, trucks, buses, leaving interestingly small gaps between us and the oncoming traffic, and speeding up wherever possible until we got to the mountains where the bus refused to go beyond about 50km/h up the windy hills, so it took about 3.5-hours in total.
It’s been so hot over the last week that I didn’t even consider it might be cold at the hill station. As we ventured further up the hill, as the sun began to set and air got colder, it became pretty clear the people around me were suffering. There were people in giant coats, scarves, and beanies, wringing their hands together for warmth. Growing up on a set of mountains myself, I thought it was kind of funny. I mean it’s cold, but not that cold. It’s like The Blue Mountains in springtime. So we finally reached the top and got a taxi to our hotel: Hotel Mount View, the land mold and mildew. Now that place was cold. It was awful. So, so awful. We also hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I’m fairly sure that made it worse. I knelt on the bed and my leg was damp. There was one thin blanket.
Chris (being highly allergic to mold) started coughing and choking fiercely. We grabbed the owner and pointed out the sheet of mold under the bed and tried to explain how Chris would have difficulty breathing because of it, and he said things like ‘all the rooms are the same’ and ‘it will not affect you’. So we left and ended up in the Hilltop Hotel – where they have big doonas, coffee making facilities in the room, cable TV, giant windows and heating. It’ expensive, but I’m so comfortable it should be illegal.
It’s now morning one of Kodaikanal, so much exploring will be done later today. The air reminds us of home – crisp and clear, but Indians don’t really do serenity. Chris was imagining something like the Blue Mountains (our hometown in Australia) or some old British town where there’d be cottages with big views, fire places – somewhere honking your horn amid such insatiable peace would warrant a scolding.
I was under no illusions.
They’ve basically tried to cram an entire city on to a mountain. Honking your horn every two-minutes to alert people of your existence is still very much a thing, the cars still have Nokia 3315-style music built in that automatically plays when reversing to alert everyone to the fact that you’re reversing, and people are still burning their rubbish everywhere like they seem to do everywhere. I’m yet to find a place that doesn’t smell like burning plastic.
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Apparently Mahabalipuram is one of the biggest temple complexes in the world, and I have to say, it was all kinds of interesting.
We walked up to the Shore Temple to pay the entrance fee when an Indian man came up to us and offered to be our guide for seven different sites. His name was Ali, he was 65, his breath smelled like alcohol, he could speak nine languages, couldn't read or write, said his parents died when he was young so he never went to school, so he picked the languages up from talking to tourists, and his knowledge of the temples was profound.
Ali explained there was a giant tsunami in the 8th Century and many of the temples are still under the sea as a result. In fact, no one had seen them for centuries until the tsunami of 2004 when the tide moved out so far that, not only did they all become visible again, the incoming tide brought missing chunks of ancient, carved statues and shrines to the shore, relics which are now on display at the temple.
We then went to the Five Rathas. Each of the temples was dedicated to a Hindu god, and is now named after the Pandavas – five hero brothers from the epic Mahabharata who shared one wife, Draupadi (find the story here and here). It's way more complicated than this, but basically there was a contest for Draupadi's hand in marriage, Arjuna's mother had forbidden him to enter, but he did anyway, vowing to never disobey his mother again if he won.
There's a longer tale of strength and triumph in the full version, but the in short version (spoilers!) he won. Arjuna got home and said something like 'look what I brought', and his mother told him to share whatever he won with his brothers so, staying true to his vow, he did. The five of them all accepted her as their wife, and they lived that way forever.
Me: "Was she happy about that?"
Ali: "She was married, of course she was happy!"
Though they look like buildings, they were actually all carved from single rocks in the 7th Century, with makeshift cement so strong it survived two natural disasters, and still stands today. The detail in the carvings is really incredible – if you ever have the option of going to Mahabalipuram, it's definitely worth a visit.
We were pretty happy with Ali as a guide, until he took us to his son's shop. Turns out his son is actually a very talented sculptor, and carves elephants, lamps, oil burners and things out of marble. We were, of course, obliged to buy things, which is where things got tense. Indian shopkeepers tend to see tourists as walking dollar signs.
I completely understand why, the dollar is a great deal more valuable than the rupee, but it's the value of each currency in it's designated country that should be noted, and it's just not. After S tried to tell me all Australians are rich in our bus conversation to Mahabalipuram, I explained that one meal in Australia cost the equivalent of 1,000INR (18.40AUD), and she involuntarily whispered, 'Wow'.
Lunch in India is around 100INR (1.80AUD).
In Ali's sons shop, we were told to 'pick anything, we will give you good a price', so picked out a small, carved elephant, and a painting, and were quoted more than 3,000INR.
Saying we couldn't afford it didn't go down too well.
At the end of the day, the items were worth the asking price, and we figured if we couldn't pay the amount deserved, we just wouldn't buy anything. We explained that we didn't want to cheat them out of anything, we even offered just to buy one thing, but they wouldn't let us leave without both items. They reluctantly lowered the cost until it was at 500INR, and we finally agreed.
Ali was bitter after that. I actually think he ended the tour early. If you ever go, make sure you say 'no shopping' beforehand.
That evening there was a dance festival on near the temple, so we went along to see what it was all about. When we arrived, there was a group of about six teenage girls dressed up in traditional Indian dance attire, headpieces and all, dancing to 37-minute long Indian compositions detailing different Hindu tales about the gods Shiva and Vishnu.
If nothing else, it was fascinating because we kept comparing it to our high school dance performances where a bunch of 14-year-olds put on some hot pants, crop tops and bright blue mascara and jumped around to Britney Spears for five-minutes. These girls had clearly been training for years. It was incredible to watch.
Almost everyone I talk to here can speak at least four languages, and studied some kind of engineering. They're incredibly focused, intelligent, and goal oriented, it's been really eye opening. They usually introduce themselves with "Hello, I'm ... , my job is ..., my father's job is..., what is your job?" – it's a big thing. Most people I know can speak English and maybe a bit of something else, in India they're all over it. I feel like I should do more. It's kind of embarrassing to say we only speak English.