Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Varanasi to Khatmandu

Cows in the train station, delays, long bus rides, Nepal.

So we had to get out of Varanasi and on to Nepal in order to head off on our tour to Tibet.
And to be honest with you all we had had enough of Varanasi and were ready to move on. There was an overnight train from V to the border
town and then we would need to take a bus or taxi over the border and into Kathmandu. Now our previous experience with the Indian rail system went splendidly despite everyone's warnings of delays etc. Well that would be short lived. It ends up we had no problem before because we caught the train at it's point of origin, not the case from Varanasi. The train was scheduled to leave at 12:30 am so we got there about 11:45. Now let me give u a quick image of what the train station looks like. First off it's a pretty big station with about 12 tracks or so, and it is packed 24/7. There were people everywhere! Litterally. They were sleeping on the ground outside the station they were sleeping on the ground in the station, they were sleeping on the platforms, there wasn't a square inch of space that wasn't occupied by a body. Actually I take that back, there were spaces for the cows who roamed freely and provided comic relief when we thought we were going to lose it.
So we get there for the 12:30 train that seems to be arriving on time and went to out jam packed platform, stepping carefully between sleepng heads and toes. We chat to a couple of fellow travellers that were going to be on the same train and shoot the shit for a bit when I decide to go take a look at the departure board and find out (for the first time of the night) that the train has been delayed for a half hour, OK not a big deal I got a book to read and some writing to do. Now the locals seemed extraordinarily interested in what I was reading and writing, they would actually stand behind me and look over my shoulder as I read, so I turned to the guy and asked him if I could help him, he just shook his head no and kept on reading, personal space does not exist in India so I just kept on reading. By now the train had been delayed again so we were stArting to get a little antsy, annoyed and bored. Luckily we had a couple of forms of entertainment. One was watching some of the guys try and catch a rat that they had trapped behind a scale on the platform, that's always a good time and at least it
kept the rat away from us. After the rat got away we had the bull saunter on to the platform and commence to take a 3 minute piss, I shit u
not it lasted 3 minutes straight and created a small steam which luckily flowed out into the waiting room and away from
us. After the bull ran off to catch his train we had been sitting there for 3 hours and the train was finally due to arrive, thank goodness. The train journey itself was uneventful except for the serenade from the loon that kept us all awake for the entire time. I've never wanted to throw someone off a train before, but it was very tempting. We get to the other end of the train line and had to take a bus to the border of Nepal which was only about an hour but then we had to take a car from the border to Kathmandu which was about 6 hours. Luckily the roads were nice and the scenery was beautiful as we climbed through the tree covered hills stopping once or twice to grab a bite from some local road side food vendors. We made it into Kath in the evening and collapsed in our hotel. More on Kathmandu in the next update.
Peace and Love

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Delhi to Varanasi

After a couple of days in Delhi we decided to get out and see a little more of Northern India before we headed onward to Tibet. We'd head some good things about Varanasi from some of our new travelling buddies Layla and Matt and decided to make it a stopping point on the way to Kathmandu. We booked a second class reserved sleeper on the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi and prepped ourselves for our first India railways experience.
The train left on time at 6:00 pm from New Delhi station and were set and excited. We found our car and it wasn't much worse than we expected. The manager of the hotel was shocked that we weren't traveling in the first class car since I assume he thinks that all Westerners are loaded and might only be traveling for a few weeks. We are neither so second class it is.
For those of you that have done Euro rail you might remember that there are doors on your compartment and the semi-cushioned seats, yeah well forget both those things suckers, these are sleepless slepers. The long seats are mildly cushioned and there are just "booths" where you and your bunk-mates sit/sleep. The hallway as you can see is right there at your feet (which hang off the end) and you are constantly serenaded by those nightingale-like tea sellers. CHA!!! CHA!!! all night. Well we make it to Varanasi by the morning and almost on time, which is a miracle as we would later find out, and make our way to our guest house.
Varanasi is claimed to be the oldest living city in the world, it is the spiritual center of Hinduism and through its heart flows the sacred Ganges river, lifeblood of India. Souds romantic, right? Well my friends reality can be a bitch sometimes. To be fair we arrived during a festival (Deepawali to be exact) so it was more crowded than usual, but I will count that as a plus. We stayed on Ahsi Ghat in a nice enough place with views of the river from our balcony.
Have you ever smelt, juniper incense? sounds nice, sure, but when you combine it with urine, cow/people/dog shit, a rotten river and cremating corpses, well let's just say it can lose its charm. The sights, sounds and smells of Varanasi were intense to say the least, and with all due respect to this ancient and sacred city, it was hard to appreciate it through all the clutter, stench and hawkers.
I know there are people that were enchanted with this place and I've heard many wonderful things, but it was really hard to get past the sensual assault to get down to it. Now you may say that it is my spoiled western view that leaves me incapable of appreciating the genuine spirituality of such an ancient place and be that as it may when you are watching a public cremation on the ghat and not 10 feet away there are 2 boys taking a poop in the river and 10 feet from that a man is washing his clothes and next to him the body of a dead dog is floating next to the guy brushing his teeth, well call me confused but the sacred value is either a bit blurred or so all encompassing that it permeates through every activity in life. I'll go with the latter I suppose.
Well I can't say that we weren't ready to leave Varanasi when we did so it was off to another sleeper train! This time e weren't so lucky with the on-time departure we experienced in Delhi (mainly because the train didn't originate it Varanasi. So our 0:30 train left at 3:30 and we waited at the train station for a good 3 hours. They were entertaining hours mind you. The highlight was probably the bull walking out on the platform among a crowd of train-waiters and watching him take a piss for about 2 straight minutes! This boy had to go, and a river flowed forth. Locals didn't mind, just roll your trouser legs up and keep on keeping on. Finally got on the train and was kept awake by some loon singing all night, seriously he sang the entire ride, drove me mental, but, hey, that's half the fun. got to the last stop on the train and off to a quick 3 hour bus ride to the border followed by another 8 hour ride into Kathmandu. The ride into Nepal was amazing, the mountains rising and climbing up up up and us along with them. As soon as we crossed the border you could notice the difference in the people. Genuine smiles and curiosity was written all along their beautiful faces and our smiles quickly returned.
More on Kathmandu next time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whoa Nelly, we made it to Delhi!

Whoa Nelly we made it to Delhi, and this place is ape-shit crazy!
It took a little longer than expected to get here since the incompetent boobs at Kenya airways cancelled our flight from Mozambiwue and instead sent us to Johannesburg for a night and then to Nairobi for another night before we finally got out flight to Delhi.
Well we made it here early this morning around 4.30 am. We got some sleep and were awakened this morning by a cacophany of noises that can only be described as bedlum. We wipe the 4 hours of sleep from our eyes and walk out of the hotel to see the streets packed with people, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and lord knows what else. The stimulus overload was immediate, but I had a grin on my face instantly. Yes I was asked if I was Indian a couple of times and for the first time, Nicky got more stares than me!!! I guess they think that she is my paid for lady or that I am rich enough to have a white wife, either way win-win ;) At any rate the city is boisterous, crowded, fast and hot and we had to dodge cars and people all day as we groped out way around this first day.
We'll be here one more day before we head to Varanasi for a couple days and then to Kathmandu on our way to Tibet!!!! We'll be there before Bhutan and then Nepal for another day or two before we come back to India for the final 3 weeks or so.
This is quite a change from Africa and we were just getting used to African culture etc. so we're going to have to adjust fast in our new spots. We're thrilled to be here and can't wait to see and do as much as possible, I'll be keeping you guys up to date as often as we can, take care of yourselves,
Peace & love

Uganda and the Gorillas

When we last left our intrepid explorers they were fresh on the trail of the reclusive mountain gorillas in Uganda. We made our way out of Kenya on the bumpiest most speed bump laiden road ever created. Adter 9 hours on the truck we mafe it to Lake Brunyoni, Uganda the launching point for our gorilla trek through the impenetrable forest. We woke up at dawn and hopped on a minivan that wound its way through some of the most picturesque scenery that was ever created. the misty mountains poked through the low clouds and cast the landscape in a quiet gray blanket. As we reached the guides camp we got our instructions and some key words on what to do should a gorilla decide to charge and pull our arms off. Basically it was crouch down, don't make eye contact and look non-threatening, not a problem. The trackers gave us a good idea of where the group was in the morning and we were off. They don't call it the impenatrable forest for nothing, we hack, crawl, climb and slide our way through steep terrain for 3.5 hours before we find out that the gorillas had found some food, about 20 minutes away. By now we're drenched, exhausted and thrilled. We meet up with the other trackers and they point down a steep, tree covered slope at a HUGE black mass among the trees. Our silver back has been found, and our hairs stand on end. We look at each other with disbelief in our eyes as we make our way even closer. This giant is simply pulling branches down, nibbling on the good bits while we totally intrude, but he doesn't even seem to notice us. We get to about 15 feet and we finally get a good look at his face. People, I can't even begin to describe what it feels like to be that close to a creature that powerful, astonishing and familiar. It was sort of like looking back in time and recognizing something base and wonderful. You could get an idea of the kind of power these animals have from being near them, but when he got up you got a real idea of his size. He was MASSIVE and he wasn't even the "boss" according to the guides. About 400 lbs of solid ape.
He points at another point in the distance and you start seeing other huge black masses in the green tangle. We found the family. 3 silverbacks, 2 black backs 3-4 juveniles and a couple of females. all happily chomping away and playing. Some were climbing trees, others were hanging on to the females and a couple of the youngsters started wrestling. They couldn't really be bothered with us (thank god) so we were able to get even closer. We got to about 8 feet of the boss and he decided to let us know that he knew we were near. He stood up and pounded his chest, took a couple of steps towards the group of us and made some loud ass calls, Nicky, always the one to pay attention quickly dropped into non-threatening pose while the rest of us just froze to the spot we were on, totally forgetting what we were told and just stared slack-jawed. We sat with them for a little over an hour and I am sure that I've never had a more humbling or gratifying experience in my life, it was extraordinary in every sense of the word. After the hour was up we headed back out, which meant another 1.5 hours of hard core treking, following a fresh elephant trail. Oh yeah, there are elephants here as well and aggressive ones as well, but luckily these tracks were heading in the opposite direction. I have no idea how the elephants live on such steep tightly packed mountains, but they do. So we get out of the forest, back across the river and up the steep hills to the road where we collapse until the van meets us to take us back to camp.
The way back was reflective and so satisfying that we all had huge grins on our faces.
There are only about 750 of these gorillas left and they will soon be extinct unless we manage to reverse the trend. It will be such a loss that I pray it never happens.
We're now in Zanzibar, Tanzania sitting on white sand beaches sipping Mai Tai's, enjoying a break from the overland camping safari excursion. Scuba tomorrow, then off to Mozambique on Wednesday.
This trip has already been epic, and we're only 18 days into it, we can't wait to wake up every morning.

Missing you all. Peace