where i've been...

My travel map

Thursday, April 30, 2009

made it!

Well, after arriving at the jeep/taxi stand at 7am on Wednesday morning, we got in a jeep at around 8am (due to the elections in India many of the jeeps were not going that day, or the following two days). We then waited until almost 9am for it to be filled to the brim and headed down the hill from Gangtok to Siliguri. After passing an accident that had just happened, a dead dog, and getting and repairing a flat tire, we made it to Siliguri around 2pm. From there we took a one hour taxi ride to the border town of Panitanki, where (surprise, surprise) due to elections the border was blocked to cars. So we walked the 1k over the border into Kakurbita, Nepal. After obtaining our visas, we were lucky enough to just catch the 18 hour bus which left at 4pm, heading to Pokhara. It is usually a 12 hour ride, but was going to be 18 due to the strikes in Nepal which are somewhat ongoing and block the roads until the police and army come to allow safe passage to the buses again.

So around 7pm we stopped, with all the other buses, and people just calmly got out and waited, watching the sun set and the fireflies come out. (I had never seen fireflies before, and they are INCREDIBLE! I think my ability to be completely entertained by almost nothing really helps me cope with travel inconveniences!) Promptly at 8pm all of the electricity went out, which is apparently a daily thing here in Nepal. No electricity from 8pm until midnight. Then there is power from 12 to 4am. From 4-6am it is out again, and then returns for the day at 6am. You can set your clocks by it.

We finally left about 10pm, only to go down a road and get turned around by police about 3 hours later, which sent us backtracking who-knows-how-far. In any case, our 18 hour journey 21 hour ride. The last few kilometers were some of the bumpiest roads I have ever traveled, and they were exacerbated by sitting in the back of the bus. Literally we kept getting jostled and tossed about 2 feet up in the air, landing off our seats or on each other. Funny for the first few minutes, but then pretty annoying. :(

Pakhora is looking pretty amazing. We were warned off of Kathmandu a bit, and steered towards this popular trekking spot instead. Looks like we will do a six day trek starting on the 2nd. When we return I think I am going to do a 4 day white-water kayaking course while Rahima takes off on a 3 day mountain bike trek back into the mountains. Nepal is truly an outdoor paradise, with everything you can imagine...right down to the grungy/hippie/outdoorsy tourists. ;)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

death cabs

We have had a great few days here in the state of Sikkim, India. It is the second mallest state in India, and like Darjeeling, it is a town precariously balanced on a hillside in the himalayas. It is amazing how these multi-story buildings literally balance on steep hillsides.

Today we took a taxi out to one of the monestaries in the area and then walked the 14 kms to another one. It was a beautiful walk, through the mountains/jungle, passing through a few little villages and seeing lots of schoolkids doing the same walk, only a bit shorter for them, and in school uniforms, giggling at the sight of us!

Then, we took another taxi back to Gangtok, and let's just start by saying that these roads are windy, steep, and not well maintained. Many of the drivers drive uphill, but turn off the engines and coast down these perilious roads. Our particular taxi had the squeakiest brakes ever, convincing Rahima and I that they were about to give out and send us over the edge at any moment. Picking up speed as you roll downhill in a minivan, careening around turns and honking (if your horn works while the engine is off) and attempting to avoid other cars (even though the roads are really only wide enough for one), potholes (aka small craters) and pedestrians. (FYI, if the choice is pothole or pedestrian, hit the pedestrian).

But we made it and will start the day to two-day process of crossing into Nepal tomorrow. That means staring with about a 3 to 5 hour jeep ride, downhill, probably mostly coasting...

Friday, April 24, 2009

What have you accomplished today?

Let's see...
I woke up. Walked down to the clocktower in Darjeeling. Got in a jeep. Waited for about 15 minutes for it to fill up with other passengers and then headed to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise and light up the Himalayas as it did so. We watched as the 3rd highest peak in the world (Kangchendzonga) changed from a shadow in the distance to a pinkish hue, to beautiful white-capped mountain-tops. On a very clear day, you can even see Everest from there. (We weren't so lucky). Then, we headed back down to Darjeeling, 12 kilometers away...but we chose to walk instead of returning in the jeep.

About 5 kms in, we stopped for a breakfast of momo and tea. Momo are similar to gyoza. Boiled, but sometimes fried, dumplings. The food in this region of India includes a lot of Chinese-influenced foods, such as dumplings and noodles. Then, we continued on, back to Darjeeling and our hotel. Where I showered, read, and then decided that at 9am, I might as well go back to sleep for a bit. :)

The adventure started at 3:45am...just a mere 4 hours after returning home from the pub where our newest travel buddy, Brad, has pretty successfully explained the game of cricket to me. He is Australian, and I think glad to have someone else around who is even remotely interested in cricket. It is huge here in India as well, so there are matches on constantly...and everyone is glued to the tvs. Kids in the streets and on rooftops are constantly playing. South Africans were crazy about it as well...so in the last few months I have tried to figure it out, but you really do need a translator to explain it to you as you watch a game.

So I took a quick nap, and then headed out for lunch, and wound up here at the internet cafe. I am still exhausted, and somehow can't believe that it is only 2pm. Feels like 8 or 9 at least. Darjeeling is amazing. It is beautiful and peaceful and completely different from any other part of India I have ever experienced. Yesterday Rahima and I got permits to head to the state of Sikkim in a few days. It was another experience in Indian bureaucracy. We had to go to one end of town to get the form, fill it out and have it stamped. Then we had to walk that form to another building, clear across town, to have it signed and stamped there as well. Of course, then we had to walk it back to the starting point to have it stamped a third time, and now we are allowed to go. Hmmmm...okay. Why wouldn't that process make sense to everyone?

The computers and connections aren't really consistent or fast here, so sorry for the lack of pictures as of late. I'll get some up as soon as I can. Now I just might go back for another nap. Mmmmm...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

travel or vacation?

Sorry! I know some of you are worried after not hearing from me in a few days, but amazingly I have spent most of that time on trains! And guess what?!? We just got on another train.

So the quick rundown on our train trip. 26 hours turned into a 28 hour trip. We had an upper and lower bunk which we quickly found out means that during the day anyone and everyone jumps on the train and sits anywhere they can fit or squeeze on the bottom bunks. So in a space allocated for 8 people, we had (most of the daylight hours) about 25. Honestly.

It was interesting trying to manage our big packs, so we threw them on the upper bunk and I climbed up like a rat in a hole for the first 4 or 5 hours. Slowly as people shifted we got the bags stowed under the lower bunk and around 9 or 10pm we attempted to sleep. It was seriously the dirtiest and dustiest place ever. By doing nothing my hands and fingernails turned black. Grimey. Yucky.

We were awoken by a lively fight (who knows what happened, some lady was yelling at everyone in Hindi) at 5:45am. Seriously, people should NOT be allowed to yell before 6am.

So our journey continued until 3pm yesterday. We ate some yummy and some interesting food that the vendors came by selling, and tried to find the balance between stayimg hydrated and not having to pee! When we got off the train we stayed in the train station for another 2 hours getting out tickets for the Darjeeling Toy Train (from the movie the Darjeeling Limited) for today. Then we got a room, killed about 30 mosquitoes in it, bombed ourselved with repellant, and fell asleep. This am we were at the train station at 8:20 to catch a 9am train, only to find out that they switched the starting station to the next town 20 minutes away. So we hurriedlu bargained an autorickshaw and made it here (where of course we found out that they have delayed the train for an hour!).

So now you can all see how "traveling" and "vacationing" differ. :)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Going deaf in India

Seriously. And I thought the honking was bad in Egypt! Clearly I had India-amnesia from being here last time and forgot how everyone honks constantly and for everything. I am amazed again by the incredible and irratic driving of all those who share the road...from cars, to autorickshaws, to bicycle rickshaws, to pedestrians, to cows, to goats, to camels and even elephants. You name it, it is on the road...mostly staying to the left, but generally fitting and squeezing between anything that might be in its way to get from point A to point B. And apart from being a cow, you better move quickly or suffer the consequences. India is certainly not a country for the faint-hearted. Plug your ears, close your eyes, and pray. Maybe that is why India is so open to the idea of a country of Muslims, Hindus, and Christians...they know you need to pray to SOMEONE to survive here. Take your pick.

Yesterday we arrived in Agra and had amazing luck because the Taj Mahal (and all Heritage Sites) were free for the day. YIPEE!!! So we saved a bundle of cash and got to enjoy both the Taj and the Agra Fort. Rahima got chased by monkeys in the Fort, because they got territorial and mad at some other people, and then chased Rahima by association. I don't know who was screaming louder, Rahima or the monkey. I haven't laughed so hard in a while. Now though, she is petrified whenever she sees a monkey, which is almost everywhere. They were all over the stairs in the train station today and she refused to walk near them. One crossed the street later on and she freaked out again. Me with spiders...that is now Rahima with her beloved monkeys.

Oh, and speaking of spiders...those little bastards ate me alive the other day. At first I thought I had fleas. No, really. You name it, it bites me. I am a walking advertisement for anti-malaria pills. So I have some mosquito bites, then the flea bites and then two days ago it must have been spiders, because now I am all welted up and itching like MAD. There must be at least 7 bites. I hate them. Hate, hate, HATE them.

But the food here is amazing and finally we are in a country where we feel like we can afford to be. A full meal is about $2. And that is a few vegetable curries, rice, naan, roti, tea, and desert. Breakfast of eggs and toast and coffee is about $1.20. Rickshaw rides, about $1. Bought a pair of linen capris for $5. My newest favorite Indian streetfood desert (galub jamun) is about 20 cents. They are little donut hole-like fried balls soaked in a simple syrup. Delicious.

So tomorrow we jump on a train for a 26 hour ride (not air conditioned, God, Allah, and Vishnu help us) to head towards Darjeeling. Eventually we will cross over into Nepal for a while and hopefully do a bit of trekking. In any case, we are really enjoying India and the overwhelmingness of all that it consists of. As most of the hustlers will tell you, "In India, everything is possible." And guess what? They're right.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Well, India is India, always full of beauty, tragedy and surprises. As we wandered around the streets of Mumbai the past few days I have seen it all. Too much heartache for me to write about her, but I will get to that in a few days. I just can't write it without crying and I feel like being a little happier at the moment.

So I will share a funny story instead. Our hotel was near the Gateway to India, down by the docks and waterfront. As we wandered around there the other day, an area full of Indian tourists and locals, we were stopped by a young woman who wanted to shake our hands. Of course, my first (cynical) instinct is to make sure of what is going on behind us, as we are obviously both looking forward, with my bag slung over my shoulder but definitely hanging on my back. I can be highly aware of pickpockets and the art of distraction, as I was taught well in Costa Rica years ago. Well, lo and behold, she actually just wanted to say hello, and then ask for a picture with us. AFter she got up the courage to do so, the party started and others who had been watching followed suit. Rahima was mortified, but I think it is hilarious to be so clearly the minority, and the object of people's attention. Whitey-whiterson...that's me.

So as we continued to walk around, we continued to be stopped by young women, young men, small families, grandmothers, and even larger families, to pose for pictures with them. I made Rahima start taking pictures of us too. I figure if they want a picture of me, I want a picture of them! :) If I had been smarter I would have started charging. 10 rupees for a picture with the white girl!

Celebrity status is really a funny thing. I liked the people who were just up-front about it, but also got a chuckle about the people who were trying to walk a few meters in front of us, pretending to answer their cell phones while clearly trying to take a pictures of us over their shoulder. Oh the things that make the world go 'round!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Australia is...

fantastic. Well, I guess now that I sit here in an internet cafe in Mumbai, I should put that into past tense. Australia was fantastic. I can't believe that I went almost two weeks without blogging, or logging onto the internet. Wow.

Due to my side trip in Uganda, I only spent a short 9 days in Australia, and will definitely go back. It is a massive country, so I don't feel too badly missing the lot of it because even if I had spent months there I could never have really seen it all anyway. That, and it gives me a great excuse to return. :)

My friend Jill came and met us, which was really fun. Let's just say that she is not quite the backpacking type (self-admittedly) so Rahima and I enjoyed a few of life's finer perks, such as real hotels, and really felt quite like tourists on vacation for a week. It was amazing. Jill got to laugh at how Rahima and I have gotten this far in life and stil have no idea what to expect from 4 star hotels and their staff. What is the difference between the concierge deak and the bell desk anyway? Answer: Doesn't matter. Everyone employed there is meant to help you. :)

So we started off in Sydney, where we were also spoiled by my Dad's friend's daughter and husband. (Did you follow that?) So my dad lived in Australia for a few years before moving to the US, and some of his friends from Austria stayed there. So David and Kirsty took us sailing around Sydney harbour one day, had us over for a bbq another day, and just generally took good care of us showing us some of the tourist areas with a nice balance of local flare. David was sure that we got to see the authentic kangaroo scrotum bottle openers, etc. in the tourist shops.

We rented a car and headed to the Blue Mountains for a quick hike and some great scenery, then down to Canberra to stay a night with Robyn and Gus, my dad's friends. We got a quick tour around Canberra the next day, then continued down the coast for the next few days, eventually arriving in Melbourne, where we spent about three days. Very, very fun.

I have to say that I could listen to Australians talk forever and not get tired of the accent. I love that they say, "How you going?" instead of "How are you doing?". I love that "Good on you" means "Good for you", and yes, there were quite a few people who really do say "G'day mate!". I ate kangaroo one night (delicious), and my new favorite Australian dish, the incredible Spaghetti on Toast. No joke. It's actually on menus and stuff. It is as if Australia is the land of frat boys and bachelors. Anything put on toast becomes a legitimate meal. Australians are quite entertaining and always willing to poke fun at themselves. That, and there was an international comedy festival being held in Melbourne the week we were there, so we got to see a few comics doing free shows and that might have influenced my perception of all Aussies being funny. ;)

So, sadly, I left Australia but I did wake up in India :) My fickle soul (or as some call it, ADD) is now enchanted by these new surroundings. We will be here for about three weeks, spreading our time between India and Nepal and trains. :) When they built Asia they shouldn't have put Mumbai so far away from Nepal.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Uganda, and now airports

Well, I just flew in to Johannesburg from Entebbe, Uganda and am now sitting at an internet cafe, where I have about 4 hours before my flight leaves for Sydney, and the next continent on my journey. Unfortunately, that really isn't enough time to really get out of the airport and do anything, so I am stuck here paying about $1/10 minutes of internet. At least it is kind of fast, (althought I can't upload pictures here) and I am getting to check some emails, pay some bills, and attempt to catch up with the first world pace again.

Uganda was absolutely amazing. Chris' friend and colleague, Charles, had told Chris that if I had only been to Morocco, Egypt and South Africa, then I had not truly been to Africa. He was right. I feel like in the last week and half I saw so much that will take quite some time for me to fully process. I can say, I would love the opportunity to go back. Uganda is full of potential and lovely people. I grabbed a book off of Chris' shelf while I was there (and almost finished it, but sadly had to leave it so he could actually read it), called The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs. It takes an economic perspective on the challenges of the world's poverty and extreme poverty and the realities of moving steps closer to actually eliminating extreme poverty in the world. Great read. I recommend it (and clearly I am hoping to find a copy somewhere to finish the last 75 pages!)

We spent some of our time in Kampala (the capital city) which I thought was a bit overwhelming, like I think of most major cities. We spent a day in Jinja, the source of the Nile and went white water rafting (in class 5 rapids!) It was excellent and the water was really warm, so as we got dumped out of the raft and into the churning water we were at least not freezing. Most of all, I really enjoyed the town where he works, Soroti. Chris and one other fellow, Julia, live in a house/office compound where they work as well. The compound is set on a dirt road (most all of the roads are dirt) right next to the local huts which are made of mostly mud walls with thatched roofs. No electricity for most of the villagers, they pump water from local bore holes, and the kids run around waving and calling hello to us "mzungus". (white people) I bought some balloons to give to some of the local kids and it was really funny showing them how to blow them up and then watching them play with them. Another great thing that people would say, oftentimes as a greeting, is "Obama". It is universal for hello for some folks. Talk about feeling good finally about being a traveler! There are also Obama restaurants and stores, etc. He is truly loved, and so are Americans now by association.

So the last night in Soroti, Julia, Chris and I cooked dinner for their co-workers and the folks who live/work at the compound. Julia and I rode into town with Simon who helped us pick out two good chickens. (We eventually went back and got two more, just to have enough. Chickens sure look a lot smaller when they are a)alive and b)still covered in feathers. Who knew?)

We then had to ride back on botas (a main form of transportation) which are bicycles with an extra seat in the back for a passenger, carryign the chickens. We stopped to watch part of a local championship football game, chickens under our arms like pets, and the only two white people in the stadium. Then we headed back to the house for the slaughter. I thought I could do it, but let's face it. I'm weak. Simon showed us how to slaughter the first chicken, and Julia, the champ that she is, slaughtered the second one. If you are a vegetarian, STOP READING HERE. Really. Do NOT keep reading this blog entry.

But if you are reading this, you either cannot follow directions, or you are not a vegetarian. So I will continue. You see, I have heard the phrase "running around like a chicken with it's head cut off", but I never realized how literal that was. Woah. New world for me. Simon literally had to hold down the body of the chicken for like 2-3 minutes after being decapitated. Crazy. Julia slaughtered the chicken, and then ran away from it, leaving Simon laughing hysterically at us (and he continued to laugh about it everytime we saw him for the next day. I am sure he is still laughing at us.)

So like I said, I "chickened" out (yes, very, VERY bad pun intended) on the slaughter, but was able to defeather the chicken, which is also bizzare. They pour hot water over the bird so that the feathers can be plucked out easier. You clean the whole thing, then cut it up and cook however you want. It made me wonder about how this is all done in the US. Are there professional chicken de-featherers? Or is there somehow a machine or streamlined process? Things I just never thought about before.

The cutest part was the local kids peeking through the fence at the mzungus, and giggling at us.

So from start to finish I can say that I took part in the process of buying and cooking dinner. Everyone else got a kick out of how this process is so strange to us and how we could have lived so long and never have had to slaughter a chicken (or any other animal for that matter).

So, that is just a highlight of my time in Uganda. I have so many other stories to share and hopefully I will be able to, if not now, then when I get back. Hope you all are well, and really, REALLY appreciate how easy you have it the next time you pick up boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a multi-pack at Safeway or Lucky. :)