Monday, May 31, 2010


As a preface we didn't get to spend enough time here, only a week as our schedule was designed for quantity in SE Asia with the intention of returning to points of interest.
We flew from Chaing Mai to Laos to avoid a long river and bus journey although we heard that it could be a lot of fun, but in the interest of time we took to the air. We land in Vientien and make our way to our guesthouse. We are closing in on Nicky's birthday and New Year so there is a festive feeling in the air. There are lights and markets going on in this former French colony and we set out to explore. The night market lines the main street and offers the same same but different kitsch that we'd been seeing so far so no real surprises there except for the wine bottles filled with some hooch and snakes. Yup little cobras jammed into bottles for your drinking pleasure. We decided not to indulge and contract any parasites etc. We managed to find some good grub on the street (as usual) and quickly devoured some odd little baked goods that were sweet enough without being blech, if you know what I mean.
The following morning we rent a scooter and head off towards some waterfalls we'd heard about from our Mozambique friends Matt and Layla. We contemplated renting push bikes but were sooo grateful that we didn't after the 2nd huge hill we scooted up. We we sweating our asses off on the scooter and batwings galore, I can't imagine the bike. We make it to the waterfalls and we find a little fruit shake cart. Now to those of you that worked with me at Conde you know that I LOVE the little Chinese lady out front that made my shakes every morning and I miss her everyday, no joke I really do, so I jumped towards this one and ordered my banana pineapple strawberry shake and eagerly wait like some sort of spastic child as the blender whirs. I wasn't really expecting a shake as good as the one back home but this one was pretty damn good so I am all smiles and giggles as we trudge off to the waterfalls. We'd heard that the falls were really great and that you could swim and climb all over them but what we weren't told about was the color. It was his amazing milky, jade-like green that was caused by some minerals from the springs. Have you ever seen romancing the stone? It looked just like the water that El Corazon was buried in if that helps. Anyway we dip our toes in the water and realize that the water is damn cold so we decide to take a walk to check out the other falls before building up a sweat and jumping in. We make it to the headliner of the falls, a huge 70-something foot fall that empties into the lovely green pool before it makes it way down to the rest of the falls. This fall is picture ready, I mean it is just big enough so that you can get close without feeling that you are going to be crushed and has a great color and makes a not to violent noise, very approachable. We decide to climb up the side and get a view from the top so off we go. The climb wouldn't be too bad if it wasn't for the flip flops and mud. As you know that can make for a slippery time and the amount of toe wedgies I got from slipping and having the little bit of rubber between your toes jammed up there was beginning to annoy me, but we made it in the end. Up above there were sweet little wading pools and huge tree roots to climb over and rest on for a break. We hung out for a while and took some pictures over the edge of the fall all the while leaning over the barrier that looked like it had been made by kindergartners, it was a few tree branches lashed together with vines and some hand written signs warning you not to fall to your death. I thought it was great and couldn't imagine what this would look like back home. You would have had to sign a waiver before standing in line to take the escalator up to stand 10 feet behind an industrial sized guard rail.

The next day we checked into our lush digs to celebrate my lovely wife's birthday and I had made reservations at what was called the best restaurant in Laos so I was particularly excited to eat a glorious meal with all the booze we could handle. We get all dolled up and make our way to The Elephant for a celebratory dinner to end all dinners. As we're waiting for our table we get to talking to another American couple about traveling etc etc..."so where are you from", NY. oh yeah us too, where abouts. Brooklyn, oh no kidding what part. Williamsburg. oh wow small world, we live on McCarren Park. We live near Barcade! So it's a small world, travel 15,000 miles only to find someone that lives 4 blocks away from you, go figure.
So we eat at this fancy pants restaurant and it really is delicious. Pork belly mmmmm, but then a crucial mistake, why oh why did I touch the salad, of course you think that in a fancy place that caters to westerners it wold be alright, but needless to say I was wrong and I paid for it starting at about 4 am. The worst part is that the next day was New Years, so I was laid up in bed while Nicky went to a weaving class, seriously, and then as the clock neared midnight I was able to get up and have a glass of sprite in a wine bar with what I'm guessing was the entire gay population of the city. So suffice it to say that everything was fabulous, and unfortunately I couldn't make it for that long, so by 12:30 we were home. As I was walking home in my food poison induced delirium we got to see these beautiful lamps being floated up into the night air. They are made of red paper with wooden frames and small candles inside, as the candles are lit the heat begins to rise and the lamps are lifted into the sky, off to make pretty stars or something.
By the next morning I was feeling human so we got the hell out of Dodge and jumped on a bus to Vientiane before heading back to Thailand to meet up with Nicky's friends in Phi Phi.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thailand. Pt 1

Thailand, more 7-11's than you can shoot a ping-pong ball at. 
I was really looking forward to se Asia and Thai in particular. I know it's been done to death but I couldn't wait. I was really looking forward to a change from India and we got it. From the minute you land the vibe was just much more welcoming and familiar I guess. On the drive into Bangkok the huge highway and neon bilboards harkened a more modern country and the level of cleanliness was the most we'd seen in quite a while.  And even though this took the edge off the town it was ok. We stayed on Kho San road which in retrospect was a mistake, but nothing that ended up being too bad. If you are going to visit and you're not 18 best to avoid it. Stay more central and you'll avoid being overcharged from everything from taxi rides to bootleg movies. The food is also lesser quality and it's not too near anything besides the royal palace which is amazing, but we'll get to that in a second.
So we arrive on khosan and it the crowd of backpackers hits us like a wall of patchulli and braids. I gotta tell you there is nothing more disturbing than white people with dreads, it just irks me to no end. Anyway I digress. The street is full of street food tattoo parlors, massage houses, bars and hotels and tourists. And 7-11's which was a trip. We had one next door and one across the street and another 2 on our block surreal since I hadn't seen a 7-11 in a long while, even back in the states.  We find our place and it looks like a good spot. Modern,  clean and with a rooftop pool, we're all fancy now. We check in and I am dying to eat, I love Thai food and I'm not disappointed. I immediately go for some street chicken to tie me over until we find a restaurant to get some Thai food.  We find another street place with tables and good looking noodles so we grab a seat, order some beer and food.  Our first official Thai meal is great, cheap and fun. 3 for 3. The next day we sleep in. It'd been a while since we'd been able to do that since we've been catching overnight trains and buses etc we were short on sleep. So around  noon we wake up and make our way outside. By the light of day Kho San is a bit of a letdown. The corners that are so hidden by night can't escape now and the ugliness shows. But that's how it is in every night spot, that's why they're called night spots.  We took the next day to get the lay of the land and sort out what was near us and eat more. Indian food is great but we needed a bit of variety. So more street chicken and noodles galore, I took out a bunch of chickens thank you very much.
We had heard that some of the best food was in the food courts so off we went to a big mall. The food court was incredible there was food from all over the world and it was delish!  Really impressive but a lot costlier than the local food  It also gave us a peek into the extraordinary shopping culture that exists the Bkok. I haven't ever seen as many shops as there are there, every inch of this city has somehing to buy and the night markets!  Oh man they are little cities jammed with alleys full of everything you could buy, from puppies to bootleg movies to motorcycle parts.  
We stopped at the royal palace which was an incredibly impressive complex. Oh yeah they also love their king here, pictures and statues in almost every store and corner so the palace was off the hook. Beautiful Thai architecture and amazing gardens. I'll put the pictures online when I get a chance so you'll see what I mean. You have to dress appropriately when you visit the palace so that meant no shorts or exposed shoulders. As you walk to the palace there are people on the street that tell you that you won't get in dressed as u r so you should buy some gear at their store, but of course they don't tell u that you get free smocks as you enter the palace!  Cheeky devils.
So the palace was unreal, gilded and austentatious Ns fit for a king. There were buddahs and golden lotus everywhere. 
Now later that night we decided to go see some kick boxing. Muy Thai is the national sport so we figured we had to check ot out. We went to one of the national stadiums and bought our tickets. Going into the place was a bit like walking into thr Thumderdome. There were three sections that each placed you further above the ring. We were in the highest one and in between there was a huge metal fence and some netting. There were about 12 fights on the card and thy went by pretty quickly thanks to a few knockouts that sent guys home on a stretcher!  It was crazy that the guys would get smacked with an elbow in the head get knocked out and two minutes later he was getting thrown on a stretcher and the next fight was getting underway.  I think the most dangerous opponent was the scorpion that walked by our feet before being squashed by a guy next to us!  He looked so fierce as he repeatedly stomped on the bug with furious anger and quickly sat back down to watch the fights.  At any rate that was a great night, got to see a bunch of Bangkok up close and personal. The next few days were spent explorig the city and eating as much as we possibly could.  The 20 pounds that I lost in the previous countries was being found in SE Asia. 
After a quick couple of days here we went to Chiang Mai in the north. We'd heard that it is a bit cooler up north and that the food and art scene is great, so off we went. It was an overnight bus ride that was heaps better than any of the other night travels that we'd taken so far. A quick albeit wobbly bus ride deposited us in the walled city. We quickly decided that we were fans of the place and proceeded to check into a little place to crash. Luckily it wasn't the hot season so we weren't dying as apparently it is brutally hot and humid during the summer, so we rented some bikes to explore the town. It's nice and flat so there wasn't a whole lot of fitness needed (thank god).  We rode all around and found the art galleries on the other side of the river and some interesting spots to gain weight. Over the next day or so we took a cooking class which was awesome since we got to go to the market to do some shopping for veg and fruit and we got to try our hand and some Thai cooking. I must say that we both did a great job and we bravely tested the limits of spiciness that we could tolerate. We had found that most places curb the spice to suit most western visitors een if you tell them to go for it. Well now we had the wheel and we were feeling ballsy. I think I may have surprised myself with the amount of chillis I devoured, Nicky on the other hand had no problems with the spice, bless her iron guts. 
The last day there we decided to take the scooter as far out of town as we could. We'd heard about a tiger sanctuary on the edge of town and some amazing scenery in thr hillsides so we were settin to do some exploring. (note to other visitors. Unless you can read Thai street signs buy a map). So about 30 minutes after we left town center we buzzed down a highway and found Tiger World!  Ordinarily I don't like zoos or places like this and we did spend a good half hour outside the place debating whether we should go in or not. I mean who's to say that the tigers are happy or treated well or have enough room to stretch their legs, guilt and dubiousness were rattling in our heads but in the end we decided to go and see these beasts. Nicky opted to go visit the cubs and I went for the big fellas. Well Nicky got the better end of that deal as she got to go in with these little twins guys that were as cute and playful as twin tiger cubs can be. They were runnig around playing with ea h other and climbing all over Nick. Luckily it was close to feedng time and Nicky got to bottle feed one of the little buggers. I had to stay outsid the room but it was all glass and managed to snap lots of pics. Grinning from ear to ear she left the twins to greet their next lucky visitor. I on the other hand went to see the big boys. These guys were about 350 lbs and pretty fucking intimidating. Luckily it was mid day and they were laying about after their meal. I walk into the enclosure with the guide and we stroll on over to a huge female named Paula. She's enormous, her paws are the size of my head and her head is the size of my chest so of course he has me lie next to her and rub her belly and put my head on her. Of course why not what bad could come fo this. Well apparently nothing as she simply rolled a little to give me better access to her belly. I gotta say it was a pretty incredible thing to be that close a creature that huge and powerful, but all in all I would have rather seen them in their natural habitat, unfortunately there aren't enough of them left to make that too easy. After the park we decided to test the limits of our little Yamaha scooter and see what there was to see in the Thai highlands. Well a lot is what there is to see. Beautiful valleys and lush, tropical mountains and rice paddies. And steep as hills!  We got a little turned around at one point and decided that a winding little "road" was the way back to town. We took the turn and as we climbed the road turned to what I would describe as a slight foot path that must have been 35-40 degrees steep. The little scoot came so close to puttering out and rolling backwards but I think I can, I think I can it made it up the steepest part only to discover that this isn't the road back to town. So back down we crept, brake squeezed as tightly as possible and my midsection squeezed by nicky equally. Eventually we found our way and rewarded ourselves with a fabulous dinner.  All in all we loved our time in northern Thailand and since we were off to meet nickys friend in the southern islands in a couple weeks we decided to go to Laos in between.  But that's another chapter.   

Saturday, February 13, 2010

India, for real this time Pt 2 Kerala and Goa

India, for real this time
Pt 2 Kerala and Goa
We made our way back from Jodhpur to Delhi to catch our flight down to the beaches of southern India. Our first stop was Varkala. A cliffside town full of backpackers, massages, cheap, excellent seafood and pervy Indian guys.  This place was a welcome change of pace and might as well have been a different country from northern India. There were still touts and all but they all had beach spirits. They wouldn't bother you all that much and wanted to relax as much as anything. So we found a great place to stay about 100 meters off the beach with a huge room, clean bathroom and a little private veranda. The beach itself is at th bottom of a 80 foot cliff that you stair down to hit sand. The top of the cliff lined with restaurants, shops, massage spots and Internet cafes. The beach is full of sun worshiping westerners and peeping Indian creeps. There are policemen on the beach patrolling the beach with the sole purpose of keeping Indian men from walking around perving on the women in bikinis!  There is something askew when you have a society so repressed that men get their jollies by taking a peek at woman's arm or leg, but that being said there are plenty of guys on the Jersey shore doing the same thing. I guess the staus of women in India and the false front put towards human sexuality was one of my biggest problems with India, but hey I'm just a visitor. So the beach town wasn't spectacular itself but the respite it offered us was incredibly important and vital for our sanity!
We'd heard of this local massage that they offered in Varkala and decided that we should give it a go. We found a place near us and scheduled a time. We get to the "spa" and we each get masseurs. Nicky and woman and a man for me, they made it an extra point to assure us that we would each get same sex masseurs, sure whatever I thought, I would figure out why soon. So we go to our rooms and there is a table and a stool and some oils, all looks fine. Ok so I'm asked to get in my underwear and sit on the stool I'm getting a head and neck massage, cool. He guy then proceeds to take off his shirt and wraps his little skirt style thing into a sumo-esque diaper, a little disconcerting but I'll go with it for now.  The guy starts by pouring a shit-load of oil on my head and starts-a-rubbing for a good 15 minutes. I'll be honest it felt pretty good and the guy was working hard and it we hot in the room, so that explains the shirt-off. So the head massae is done and he says ok take off he rest of your clothes and lay on the table. Now I see a sheet on the table but don't see a towel to cover up with. He sees me look around and gives me a nod towards the table. Well shit I got nothing to be ashamed of so off come the drawers and I hop up on the table, when in Rome and all. 
So out comes even more oil and this guy is is taking this seriously and proceeds to give me a thorough if not slightly awkward massage. By the end I was relaxed and greasy as hell. I shower off with their "organic" soap and shampoo and still feel as slippery as an ell. The towel is more like a piece of cheese cloth and it's all a bit comical but fun none the less. 
Our next stop is up the coast to a small town whose name escapes me at the moment. Anyway we're on the train when we run into these 2 young locals asking if we're on our way to town and they tell us about this place that they play music at and work etc. We're a little weary of the pitch but one of he guys reminds me of Luke back in NY. I'm not sure why but he looks a bit like him and plays guitar and sings. So we agree to check the place out and has a bit of a hippy commune feel and we dig it so we stay.  Anyway we're in this town to find out about the backwater tours that they run through the little villages etc. Most of the houseboats are a couple hundred bucks so we find out about the local paddle tours. These are run by local villagers and they paddle you in their dugouts around the little back channels of heir villages. We figure that we'd rather give our money to a local guy rather than a tour company so we book it for the next morning. We head back to the hippy spot and sure enough Indian Luke shows up and gives us a big smile and chats a bit before he gets his guitar out and starts playing. It seems like everyone that works there plays an instrument and they all join in. We got drums, bongos, guitars and singers. They're singing Beatles, Oasis, Stones everything and we feel a lite surreal sitting and watching but we had a great time. 
Next morning and our guy is there to pick us up for the boat trip. 
We take the ferry to his town and we walk to his house to pick up his canoe. The whole village is criss-crossed with canals instead of roads and it is awesome. We meet his wife and two cute little girls along with his mother and father and brother. They all share this 2 room house that can't be bigger than a NYC studio apt. They are the epitome of hospitality and are all smiles. The girls are smiling and hiding behind their mother's skirt feigning shyness. So off we go on the tour and he paddles us around pointing out interesting landmarks along the way. It is quite beautiful and as it is in a small village everyone knows everyone. He waves and chats to his neighbors as we float by and we're as happy as can be. Lunchtime comes and he takes us back to his house for grub. His wife has prepared a hell of a spread including fried fish (tiny little silver guys) fried chicken, rice, chapati and some other curry. This is all served on banana leaves on their bed. That's right, they don't have a dining room so they lay it all out on their bed. I feel this weird mix of warmth and guilt as we eat this feast. I'm worried that we are eating more than they would in a week but then I figure that we are going to pay for the meal so it works out best for them. It's funny because they are so concerned that we are enjoying our meal that they keep coming in and checking on us to make sure that we are ok. It's true that the people that seem to have the least
material goods are the most generous and richest in spirit. After lunch we noticed that he girls had dressed up in their Sunday best. We asked and were told that there was a wedding taking place and pretty much the whole village was going. I took a bunch of pictures of the cuties and while they
pretended to be shy they quickly ran up to take a look at hemselves in the camera. So now it was time to head back to town, we thanked them all for their hospitality and off we went. 
We took a bus to a port town called Ft Cochin. A surprisingly cool little town whose claim to fame are the Chinese fishing nets that line the coast. We found it to be much more than that though. We arrived late and only had a chance to grab dinner and get some sleep. The next day we found that the town had a great Italian eatery run by and expat and had an amazing pizza and pasta!  Total surprise. We walked around looking to replace my terminal flip flops and stumbled across a good footy match takingplace between two kid's teams and the impressive part was that it was hot as all hell. It was in the upper 90'a and we could barely walk around let alone sprint. Anyway we stopped into every shop that had AC and discovered that the town had a bunch of little boutique shops with great stuff. Outside one of these places was where we met David Allen the best tuk tuk driver EVER. We explained that he had friends in Chicagothat come to visit every year, he proceeded to show us their number in his cell. He had named his tuk David Allen because after a couple of years visiting his friends from chicago David and Allen had bought him the tuk tuk!  Well this guy was super friendly and he told us that he would take us around for the rest of the day for like 150 rupees which was way cheap. He said not to worry about the price, if we liked the job he did we could tip him at the end, fair enough. Off we went to explore Cochin. We saw a fort and the port and Jew Town, apparently there used to be a small enclave of jews that had lived in town and we visited the synagogue that by now had a congregation of about a dozen chosen people. Our last stop was the spice port. Ayurvedic Medicine is a big deal in those parts and we were shown the warehouse where a huge variety of the essential herbs and spices were kept. This place was great, it smelt like a candy shop, perfumerier, kitchen and health spa from room to room. He would reach into bags and pull out some twigs, shake em and break a couple and he would have us sniff these amazing aromas. Some familiar and some totally alien. He would explain what each was used for and give us their western names. He knew it all, this David Allen and we appreciated it. The last room had golden raisin!  Natures's candy. I'm a bit nuts for raisins and golden ones are my favorite. I had to have some so I got David Allen to ask the guy to sell me some of his wholesale stock and I was as happy a a kid in a candy store. If I could have bought the whole bushel I would have. So he dropped us off at our hotel and needless to say we gave him a great tip. He just opened his shirt pocket and said "I don't need to see the money just put it in here". So we did. We ran into him
later that night and he came up to us and said thank you and gave us a lift to wherever we were going. 
Next stop Goa
We stayed in a beach town called Palolem in a great place run by a Brit and Swede couple called Home that had great food and an awesome beach that even the cows loved. We spent a couple of relaxing days there and finally got to do some yoga!  We recharged our batteries there before heading to Mumbai

Mumbai is like a cross between South Beach and Delhi. A real interesting city.  Out of all the places in India it is the only place that I could imagine living in if that tells you anything
We got to be a little metropolitan and had drinks on a hotel rooftop with the "pretty people" of Mumbai. We did a little bit of shopping here and had a great breakfast at the Taj Mahal hotel near India gate.  This was the same hotel that was attacked last year by the islamic fundamentalists and the work on it has pretty much been completed.  Security was pretty tight as it should be but the service was impecable. Elephant island had a bunch of ancient caves with carvings and statues all over, but to be honest we were a little burnt out and really needed to rest, plus it was hit as Hades.  overall it was a good final stop in India.  So with that we say goodbye to India. Quite an amazing country and obviously we only got to scratch the slightest bit of it, but enough to make us want to come back.  Off to SE Asia, first stop Thailand!      

India, for real this time. Pt 1 Rajistan

India, for real this time
Pt 1 Rajastan
Saying goodbye to Bhutan we jetted to Delhi for the start of our extended time in India. We'd spoken to a couple of peoe and they said that he second time you get to India you appreciate it more since you know what to expect and the bananas-craziness isn't so bananas-crazy. So with this in mind we ready ourselves for India redux. Delhi was a brief stop on ou way to explore Rahjistan. Agra, Udipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur are on the agenda for northern India before we head to Kerala and Goa for some beach time before Mumbai and then SE Asia. As a matter of full disclosure I am writing this on my iPhone on an overnight bus from southern Cambodia to Siam Reap so I may not have the sequence in exact order but all the things did happen.
Home of the Taj Mahal and Red Fort and not a whole lot more, but it realy doesn't have to be. Agra is pretty full on but luckily we are ready for it having just been in Delhi and the touts don't really phase us as much. A simple and stern no and they move onto the next lot. The events and trip to the Taj were uneventful but the Taj is jaw-droppingly epic. In the middle of an otherwise typical Indian town stands this testament to love that shames all other mortal's attempts at shows of affection. No matter how many pictures you've seen or shows you've watched walking past the gates and laying eyes on it takes your breath away. I'm not going to bore u with the history of the building, u can google that yourselves, but I will try to convey the sense of awe and solemnity that you feel despite the facts that there are tons of people milling about. The gardens are maticulously groomed and the fountains and waterways lend to the scale and elegance of the place. The marble glows, it litterally glows and your drawn to it like a moth. You have to take off your shoes before u ascend the stairs and it actually helps connect u to where u are. The cool marble soothes you from the heat of the day and each step heightens your senses. Inside the simplicity is elegant and the details and workmanship is unparalleled. Stone mosaic flowers of every color crawl up walls and dance along lattice work. It makes you forget that your actually in a mosoleum. The cavernous chamber has high reaching ceilings that lend a feeling of heavenly calm. The only structure was an enclosure wrapped in lattice that looked over the tombs below. The chambers on either side were similarly decorated and provided small nooks for a number of couples to sit and canoodle. Back outside we sat behind the Taj and just stared. We weren't the only ones staring, but most of the Indian tourists were looking at us!  This time they didn't just look they recorded it. We were asked to be in about 10 different groups pictures. Completely random folks all sorts. Young girls, families, random creepy dudes u name it they wanted pictures with us. Nicky was especially popular with the creepy dudes but they usually asked me if it was ok and I'd tell them that they could have a pic with her if I could have one with their wives, that usually ended the request. Apparently they wanted a pic of Nicky so they could go back and tell their friends that they bagged a western girl!  Cheeky bastards.  With the both of us were to show off their new western best friends. So we are now in a bunch of random peoples memories and scrap books, fair enough.  Anyway the Taj was the highlight of Agra, off to Jaipur. 
We start in Jaipur the pink city. 
So the pink city is the old home for the Raj and his family which has now been turned into a museum and arts and crafts co-op type place that really does have some wonderful artists working there and some not so great ones that create things that belong on dorm room walls. There's a great audio tour that goes along with the tour that explains the significance of the Tajs in Indian history as well as their symbolic present day role. The throne rooms and reception halls are resplendent in their gold, emerald, diamond clad oppulance and the chandeliers are tributes to French craftsmanship and seem to defy gravity by remaining attached to the ceilings. I tried to take a picture of one in the trone room and got chased by a security guard and had to erase it!  Damn. Anywayswe were being driven around the pink city and Jaipur by a cool tuk tuk driver that told us we should check out the Amber fort, so off we went. On the long road out he mentioned that I looked awfully Indian and I reassured him that while I am handsome I am not Indian, he got a kick out of that and asked me if I wanted to drive the tuk tuk. Well hell yeah, move over!  So I hopped in the front seat and took over. He wouldn't let me go too fast as apparently he wasn't aware that I am an excellent driver. So he let me drive for a while until we got near the fort and then I had to get in the back so he wouldn't get caught by the security around the entrance. The amber fort is a massive Goliath of a building situated on top of a tall ridge with protective walls encircling the land. There isn't a whole lot going on inside the fort in terms of artifacts etc but you do get to tap your inner Indy Jones and explore the halls and staircases that can be found in the most unusual places. While we were exploring we ended up geting a little lost and turned around and eventually found a group of guys in the same situation. We bonded over this and mimed communication to each other and eventually found our way back to the main courtyard and freedom.       
On to an overnight train for Udaipur!

 Have you seen Octopussy?  If u are in a pinch go to any backpacker spot in Ud at 7 and you'll catch a viewing. A majority of the movie was filmed in this lovely town and the charm is still there. Set around a large lake the city spreads up and around the surrounding hills with small winding streets cracking throughout. It reminded us a little of Venice in that way. We made our way to the guesthouse that was recommended in the book and we were really jazzed with the accomodations. We had a great room with pastel plastered walls and a rooftop restaurant with amazing views of the floating palace. This small island is actually a 5 star hotel that glows stark white as it hovers in the water like a low slung cloud. This was Octopussy's lair in the movie. As dusk moved in the first night the mosquitos came out and the deet and ice cold Kingfishers helped them stay away or go unnoticed. And at 7 on the dot the theme music known the world over started, 007 had arrived.  We spent the night relishing this town and looking forward to taking a look around.   Katy had told Nicky about a great cooking class in town so we went looking for it the next morning.  Luckily the place was only a few streets away and we booked a class for the next day.  Meanwhile we went and explored the town a bit and took in some sights, monkey temple here, Ganesh temple there really quite enjoyable.  We crossed the footbridge and had lunch in a great terraced restaurant seated in a veranda with views of the lake and the city palace, perfect. 
In Rajastan there are these paintings that they make that use old stamps as paper. These stamps aren't like the ones we are used to, these are about the size of a sheet of paper and are about 100 years old so they have this great aged quality about them. Well we had been looking for a nice one for a while and as we were waking through some small winding roads found an art school/ co-op. We took a look inside and got to talking to one of the students and he explained how the different levels of skill worked and showed us examples of the work. We found a coue that we liked and started negotiations. Now these pieces weren't particularlly expensive, but once you get used to haggling, buying things becomes sport. Ma, you would be proud of me!  I'm actualy a little worried that I won't be able to stop when I get back in the states, I can imagine myself trying to buy some coffee and a cake asking if that really the best they can do. Oh well. So after a couple days of talking with the guy we came to a fair price and off we went. 
Besides haggling with art students we took a little boat ride around the lake and got to go to the floating palace. Amazing place, wonderful gardens full of Franjapani trees and orange trees, a little floating paradise. That night we had our ckkoing class and we were really looking forward to finally cooking for ourselves. The owner of the shoo was a pleasant guy that walked us through the basics of Indian cooking. You need yourself a spice box he told us, with that you could prepare any Indian dish. I forget all the spices that were there but it smelt of heaven. While we were preparing the first course 007 came for a visit, the song echoed through the streets and our guys face gave a quick flash of familiar annoyance. I asked if he got tired of the movie and he said that he'd never even seen it!  He remembers them filming it 20 odd years ago and says that Roger Moore was a very nice guy, chatty etc but he never bothered to watch it but he could probably recite every line verbatim. Anyway we prepared some curries, chapati, chai, desert and got to ask him a little about Indian life. Chai, chapati, chatting and children the quintessential aspects of indian life.  We wanted to know how come there aren't many other cuisines in India and he told us that there were such a variety of Indian food that there wasn't a need. He rattled off a bunch of different curries to give examples  Now I like a good curry as much as the next guy but you could only dress up curry so much, it's still curry. We asked about the beer in India and he pointed out that Indians don't drink for pleasure they drink to get drunk so whiskey is their choice. But drinking is frowned upon as it lends to a poor reputation so it is usuall done in private, only in homes and never inter-generationally. So a father and son would never have a drink together and women would most certainly never be caught drinking, you wouldn't be able to marry them off if they got the reputation of a drinker. Stange to us but fair enough this is why we travel. The meals were excellent and we had a great time with our host. Off we went to sleep it off and head to the next town in the morning.
Jodhpur,  the blue city
Anchored by a clocktower in the central market this heaving mash up of everything under the sun was same same to the markets we'd seen thus far and since we only had a short time to visit here we had to hit the highlights the Maharajah's palace, this one was in amazing condidltion and was a particularly proud symbol for Jodhpur. The tour was narrated by the current Raj and it added a wonderful touch of hospitality.  As we walked up the steep walkways we were told a story about the building of this palace. It seemed that  originally a hermit had lived on the spot where the palace was to be built. Now u know hermits as well as I do so he wasn't to thrilled with being told that he had to get up and go. He decided to throw a curse on the building saying that there would never be water available as long as the fort stood. Well this scared the early raj and so he went to consult his priests etc. They told him that a great sacrafice would be needed to break this curse. Well what to do...up steps a brave soul and he says that he would be the sacrafice that they need. So as we are walking up the ramps the guide points to a marker on the wall and tells us that this is the spot where this brave soul was buried alive into the wall.  I thought it would be a prize sheep or something, but this guy was in the wall, pretty impressive.  
As we walked into the courtyard the raj would tell us about the day that he was crownded. His father had died unexpectadly and at the age of 6 or 7 this young boy was thrust into a very public and important role. Not that there were many political decisions that had to be made, but he was still an important symbol in the city, pretty heady stuff for a little kid. The courtyard is surrounded by tall walls with lattice screens all around. We were told that the screens were where the women used to stand behind and watch the goings on. Since at the time women weren't allowed to be looked upon this allowed them to see and not be seen, how considerate. These screens would pop up all over the palace especially hidden away in meeting rooms. The wives would be allowed to listen in on meetings and would later give their counsel to the Raj, so it was a bit surprising for me that they were valued for their opinions but couldn't actually be seen, but baby steps I guess.  That was is for our whirlwind tour of rajastan and we regrettably had to skip a few spots, but that gives us something for next time. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

New India Images are up

Just a few shots from our time in India, enjoy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bhutan, land of dzongs and dongs

The land of the Thunder Dragon, how cool is that.
I have to admit that this was the place that I was most looking forward to visiting. So remote and mysterious that the prospects were irresistably thrilling. What we found was a country of unparalleled beauty with a well developed sense of itself that has so far been able to retain it's culture while fostering a realistic approach into the global future. This is due to a large deal to their beloved monarch. And boy is he beloved, I mean dude has pictures and shrines all over the place. He's a young king as well. Mid 20's not married yet, beloved leader, in other words PIMP. His father gave him the throne a few years ago so that he would be able to act as consigliere to his boy, something that he was denied when his own father died early and he was thrust onto the throne as a young boy. So maybe the country could be described as having some daddy issues? Possibly, I mean they are encouraged to wear their traditional wardrobe during working hours, so for men it's a Doh (pronounced just like Homer would) and for women it's a kira; and the buildings are supposed to be built in the traditional architectural style but overall they are embracing modernism at their own pace. Got the interwebs in 99 and everyone has a cell phone and a slick new ride so things ain't all old school.
We get to the Indian side of the border at Bagdagra to meet Katies plane and our guide for the next week Kili.
Kili is about 27 and dresses like he lives in Billyburg and fusses over his hair to a Mangina like degree, all's good.
Katie lands safely and we make our way to Phuentshuling at the border. We have a night at the border town before heading out the next morning into Bhutan. It's just the three of us on this tour so it's perfect and tailored to what we want. The drive is a mountainous magnificense that slowly reveals the beauty of this place. Of course beauty comes at a price and we had to wait on a mountain pass for about 4 hours while workers blasted the road wider. So we had a late lunch and high tailed it to Temphu. Now having come from Tibet we weren't expecting much in the way of accomodations but man were we pleasantly surprised. A beautiful néw modern hotel with, get this, heaters soft beds and a TV!!!!! Remember when u were little kids and you got to go on vacation and sleep in a hotel, how amazing that felt and all you wanted to do was jump on the bed and push every button you could find, well that was us. It's as if we'd never been anywhere before!
Well we slept like kings and queens that night and awoke ready to explore Temphu. Our first stop was the crafts school in town. Part vocational school part design program the students concentrated on wood working, drawing, weaving, sculpture, leather works and metal crafts. We got to observe the various levels of each and see their skills develop and I gotta say I was impressed. In fact the weaving was the most impressive hands down, I mean the sheer time-skill-effort that those loom mistresses demonstrated was "encore, bravo bravo" good, for real, I got the shots to prove it. But as I said before beauty comes at a price and the triple digit price tags proved a bit steep. So we moved on to our next stop which was a dzong! Dzongs are fortresses/monastaries that dot Bhutan and there are no shortages of them. They follow the general design of the other such places that we'd seen in Tibet and nepal the difference that these were impeccably clean and well maintained. Every wall painting, statue, book and corner of the places were good as new. It made us think that Tibet could have been like this if the Chinese govt would allow it but that's neither here nor there. This dzong was at the confluence of two rivers a white and a black river, male and female. This massive ediface had a lovely bridge that had been rebuilt a little while back with the help of the Germans after a flood washed the original one away. I think this dzong dated from the 1500's and didn't look a day over 350.
The next day we took a trip to the valley of the black-necked cranes a rare species that live in Bhutan, japan and siberia. We drove out of Temphu about an hour and a half through more amazing winding hills until we reached a magnificient valley that stretched several miles with a pristine river flowing through it. We of course started with a trip to a dzong before we were left to take a trek through the valley and meet our guide at a school a fee miles down the valley. Now I'm not even going to get close to describing how jaw droppingly beautiful this was but it reminded me of the hills of Scotland, not that I'd ever been there but if you have this sublime, ideal vision of what a glorious countryside should look like this surpasses it a hundred times over. Verdant greens, overwhelming smells of fresh grass and plants and the sounds! You could hear birds frogs cows cranes hooting and living you felt completely calm and whole. The peace was only broken by the laughter of kids. We walked up one side of the valley to find a gazeebo over under construction on the edge a outcropping and more laughter. I walked over to the skeleton of the gazeebo to find a group of boys playing on the hillside. They had built some sleds out of some wood and made Bhutanese tabogons to fly down the dried grass and growth. They would get a good head of steam going as they laughed-smiled their way down the hill then back up. Hey caught sight of us and shouted mister madam come come, so we came came and joined them. I grabbed the ladder looking sled and took a ride. You get going a lot faster than you think and stopping is a little more difficult but using your ass and feet help. Nicky and Kate took a spin and all you could see were two huge smiles and hear their laughter even louder than the boys'. We took some pictures of the boys and promised to mail them copies and we were off to finish our hike. We finally saw the famed cranes as they flew overhead and we descended into the valley passing pine trees sporting old man's beard, a lichen that only grows in ultra clean environments, at least that's what we were told and there's no reason not to believe it considering the sheer beauty of this place.
So we get to the valley floor and walk along a small river amongst lush grass and flowers. There are the occassional cows grazing and a few farms and us.
We spot our guide in the distance and we make our ways toward him, but not before a group of beautiful horses run
past us. I mean you couldn't make this stuff up, like the sound of music without the horrible music or Nazis.
The next day we make a visit to a small village that is home to the monastary of the Tibetan Madman. This ancient legend
tells the story of a monk that traveled from Tibet into Bhutan centuries ago with the intention of setting up a monastary on a particular spot in this countryside. Well the story goes that this rapscallion of a man as horny as a rabbit. He would have sex with just about anyone and anything given the chance.
He also had the ability to see the future and helped ensure fertility. Now in Bhutan the phalus is considered a protective symbol, so you'll see it all over the place; painted on almost every building, worked into architecture and there are a plethera of enormous wooden dongs hanging from windows and roofs evrywhere you turn
So this monastary was his chosen spot and it was also where our guide was blessed and named. He had told us stories of many westerners making pilgramiges here searching for help with fertility issues so we figured while we were here we'd get a blessing. Kili goes off to get a monk and returns with the youngest monk in the history of monks!
This kid hadn't even hit puberty yet but he went and grabbed a huge wooden dong, a bow and arrow and gently knocked us on the head for a blessing, talk about a surreal moment.
Off the Paro and the Tiger's Nest!
Legend has it that an ancient prince was flow up a cliff on the back of a white tiger and meditated in a small cave for 3 months before beginning to build this monastary
I'm not sure that I can aptly describe the sheer wonder and awe that overwhelms you as you gaze 300 meters up a sheer cliff to spot the temple built there.
It seems to defy the laws of physics to see this magnificent structure clinging to the rock
I can't even begin to imagine how to build this today let alone centuries ago.
The steep hike up would take about 2 arduous hours, but it was worth every step to see it up close. I must've taken 100 pictures of this thing and I could have done it all day
Up one hill down a gorge up another hill and then we get to walk by an amazing waterfall as we ascend the final stretch of stairs, panting and weezing as we go.
Views, sublime. Temples, check. Blessings, got 'em. I could have stayed and stared at it all day long but we had to make our way back into town, so down down down we went. And to show you what a small world it is as we were making our way down we stopped at a tea house and got to talking to an American lady about our trip. Turns out she lives in Cobble Hill! Go figure.
Now one thing that we noticed as we traveled around was that the general demographic for tourists in Bhutan is quite a bit older than us
Typically the age looks to be mid 50's and up and when we asked Kili he told us that we were the youngest people he'd had
Since we were in his hood we sakes him to show us some night life. Now bear in mind that this country closes down around 10 so we weren't expecting a raucous night
He picked us up at the hotel around 8:30 and off we went to a bar. Nice bar could have been in the east village and it was pretty empty. We asked him if it was a slow ngt and he told us that it was still early
Sneaky place had a hidden side all along. So we met up with a couple of his friends and had several Tiger beers before heading to a club
That's right clubbing in Bhutan. And it was legit. Had a high cover charge, they frisked you! and the drinks were pricey.
One huge difference is that you could order fried eggs along with your cocktail, odd
Lady Ga Ga blared and sweaty kids danced under black strobe lights till the wee hours of the morning this was by far the most surreal moment of the trip up to this point.
We flew out from Paro to Delhi and said goodbye to Katy and Kili and a beautiful country that will always bring a smile to our faces when we think about it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pictures Link!

OK, since coding this blog for images is doing my head in, I'm adding a link to my flickr account. Enjoy, and keep in mind that these are UN-edited so have mercy.
Peace and Love

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ta-ta Tibet

 Tata Tibet
Lhasa to Kathmandu to Delhi

So now we say goodbye to the beautiful heartbreak that is tibet and fly back to Nepal.   Flying out of Lhasa provided us with great views of everest and not to put a nail in a stereotypes' coffin but every Japanese tourist on the plane jumped up, ran to the side of the plane and snapped away at every white capped peak they could see, it was brilliant so I joined the snap snap fest. So we get back to Kath and we decided to go to Chitwan national park down south and then make our way to the eastern birder with India on our way to Bhutan. However an unfortunate encounter with eggplant lasagna left my poor Nicky with Kayhmandoody for about 5 days. So I got to know Kath fairly well as I passed some hours of the day walking the city. 
Eventually nickys tummy got better and we decided to fly to the border of India and make our way via Darjeeling to join nicks friend Katy for the Bhutan leg of the journey. A quick flight a long border crossing and a twist-turny jeep ride later and we are in Darjeeling, green-valleyed Tea Mecca of the world. I wasn't sure what to expect from Darj and it surprised me on a couple of levels. First was the geography of the place. Super hilly with the city clinging right to the hillsides. I was expecting it to be situated in a lush valley but there it clung like a developed ivy grown into the hills, lots of stairs for us to negotiate. The second surprise was the Gurkaland movement afoot. Apparently there are a large number of tibetans settled in the area that want/expect autonomy for this region and they are very vocal about their cause. So much so that we awoke the next morning to find a strike had been called to the region!  This meant that eveything was shut down. Shops, food, museums, roads the whole town. Needless to say we were caught off guard by this and found ourselves not only hungry but feeling unsypathetic to the cause. I'm not sure what they hoped to gain by shutting down all facilites but it seemed to affect the locals more than the few tourists that were there. Well we made our way by foot in search of some food and found salvation at the Elgin hotel. This period hotel from the days of British colonialism and Raj days was still serving food and good food at that. We had high tea. Finger sandwiches crumpets the whole shabang served with white glove service, classy. Having eaten we proceeded to the Happy Valley tea plantation, famed suppliers to Harrod's. We took a tour and got the low down on tea grades and on the way out were greeted by the 5 second lady. This proprietress of a small tea hut invited us in for a cup of her famous 5 second tea. First grade tea the likes of which are valued in the finer houses in London town. She explained that tea usually takes 2-3 minutes to steep, however due to the high quality of happy valley's tea only 5 seconds would be needed. She's got a great pitch and serves a mean cup of tea. On that note we decided to get out of dodge while we could. There were rumors of another strike taking place and if that was the case we risked not getting to Bhutan to meet Katie for our tour and we couldn't let that happed. So we bid adieu to Darjeeling In The back of a pickup jam packed with fools that had he same idea as us.