Sunday, December 28, 2008

relief in agra

Ahhhhhgra. A breath of fresh air. Relatively clean, less touts, good prices, healthy food and a world-class monument, what else can a traveler ask for? I could tell we were in a new phase of our trip when we arrived late into Agra on the train and I wasn't stressed, the roads were paved, and I could see the stars burning brightly on this chilly desert night. We got up before dawn to see the Taj Mahal, THE monument to romantic love (the Shah built it for his wife who died in childbirth), which was shrouded in an ephemeral mist. Then, we took some time to wander through Agra Fort, a sandstone red complex that stood to protect the royalty more from the revolt of their subjects than invaders.

The following day we took a day trip on the insanely overfilled local bus to Fatehpur Sikri, a city built as the new dynasty and abandoned 20 years later due to the lack of water. Because of the short tenure of human habitation, the place is well preserved and some of the details remaining are quite exquisite carvings and decorative flourishes As we strolled through the abandoned streets of this ancient city, I was wishing all of India was a placid as this place.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

incredible india

After Khajuraho, with a renewed tenacity, we headed on to a less touristy part of India to see a slew of UNESCO World Heritage sites: prehistoric rock paintings, the oldest buddhist building in the world, gigantic sacred Ajanta and Ellora caves with sculptures and paintings of early Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and the famous colonial train station in Mumbai. We got to our first hub, Bhopal, our base from which to explore the cave paintings and the oldest buddhist stupa. We had planned to spend several days here, relaxing for Christmas and seeing each of the sites on their own day, but these notions were reversed once we stepped from the train.

Shouting touts and half-witted beggars getting eerily close to our pockets with their wandering hands greeted us at the station exit. Checking out our hotel options, we found a few overpriced musty rooms and decided that Bhopal is not a place to linger. Deciding we would try to take a train to the Ajanta and Ellora caves tomorrow afternoon, we rushed that evening to see the fantastic rock paintings, hemmorghing money to bypass the public bus and go by taxi for time's sake.

We had an hour to see all fifteen caves, which made us feel rushed, but the wonder of seeing markings made by the humans of prehistory is immensely moving. These marks were etched in the stone twelve thousand years ago; before any seeds had ever been planted and cultivated, before any people took dominion over animals through domestication, before anyone lived in settled homes, before religion, wars, empires, industry, science. The graceful animals they scratched showed a study, a respect for the creatures that exist and sustained them. The most moving image for me was an outline of a hand, that opposable thumb and the part of our body that separates us from the animals, which this early person placed onto the rock and decided it needed to be remembered there.

Back to the madness, we went to the train station to reserve our train for the next day to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves and we come to find they were sold out! So, placing ourselves on the waiting lists we prayed we'd get a spot. We returned to our hotel room late, slept fitfully, and rose again in the early morning to see the buddhist monuments. Again loosening our pockets for speed, we arrived at the monument with less than an hour to spend. We saw the influence of the far-reaching ancient Greeks on this earliest of Buddhist monuments (from 250 BC), and enjoyed the artwork from before Buddha was depicted as the smiling fatty we know him as today; then he was the bodhi tree, the lotus flower, and the horse.

Returning to the chaos of the Indian city again, we picked up our bags and hoped we could get the hell out on the train. Which, of course, didn't happen. India, incredible! Being forced to either stay in this terrible city for an indefinite amount of days with nothing to do or skip the Ajanta and Ellora caves and head north to Rajasthan, we chose the latter. Here's hoping we have a shift of luck in this next leg of our journey.

kink in khajuraho

After the holy city of Varanasi we tried to head to Khajuraho, a double feature town with both UNESCO World Heritage listed Hindu temples as well as a national park with lots of indigenous animals to see. Alas, the transport gods do not love us. We waited for our 11 pm night train for 4 hours, finally getting on at 3 am only to find the conductor setting up his office in our sleeper birth, conducting business all night. After a two hour tipsy-turvy taxy ride from the rail head (I think our driver thinks he is racing the Indy 500) on little to no sleep, we trudged into Khajuraho...

...Only to find out that evening that Alex had contracted food poisoning which was getting slowly worse as the evening progressed. The night passed along with plenty of bodily fluids fleeing his ailing system, and we spent the next day nursing him back to health. It is these particularly trying circumstances that really made us want to enjoy where we are, to take it in, to see what we came here to see. Forging ahead, we spent the next day giggling at the sculptures on the temples, as they are famous for their depiction of Kama Sutra, and the following day we got up before dawn and went on a safari. Our main goal was to see a tiger, but because of human greed and negligence, the tiger population has dwindled drastically over the last decades. Knowing our chances were slim for a tiger spotting, we could relax and enjoy the creatures we did get to see: Nilgai (giant antelope), Sambar (large deer), Chital (small spotted deer), Wild Boar, Langur Monkeys, Kingfisher birds and Storks. The landscape was a combination of teak forest and savannah-like grassland with a few craggy trees dotted in the foggy mist. Oh, it's the moments that make travel what it is.

Friday, December 19, 2008

challenges in east india

India is filthy. From the moment we stepped from the plane we were bombarded with grime, scum, dirt, exhaust, feces, urine, vomit, spit, trash, burps, farts, mice, rats, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, and miscellaneous bugs. People are poor here, the population is exploding, filth is to be expected.

But seeing past the grime reveals a world unfocused on the external and casually retaining its history. Older women let their often soft sides show through elaborately decorated saris and men with dyed red hair chew betel nut (a mild stimulant) as they stroll through the streets. Every person is cognizant of their caste, a system which delineates sectors of society by birth. The lighter skinned people are the highest caste, Brahman, succeeded by three lower castes down to the 'untouchables,' people who are cast out from society altogether.

Calcutta is a difficult place, challenging to handle for even this experienced traveller. We spent most of our time there seeing the remnants of British colonial architecture and one afternoon strolling through the neighborhood where people have burrowed homes into piles of trash. To see a child climbing out of her home which was created from the waste of others is just staggering.

We moved on quickly to Varanasi, the holy city along the Ganges River where Hindu people come for good karma. They bathe themselves in the river, and if they die here they are said to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth, which makes it a popular place to lay to rest (certainly different from Florida!). We spent most of our time here wandering through the Ghats (areas of steps down into the water which serve different functions). Saw people swimming in the (now officially sewage) water in the mornings, waking up and starting the day with a jolting cold swim, and watched the bodies burn from a distance at the cremation ghat. Private moments are public here, and the inevitability of human suffering is on display in all its varying forms. Children and cripples beg for food and animals (dogs, goats, cows) pick through trash for their next meal. India is both sad and fulfilling, educating and difficult, exhilarating and fundamentally moving.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

in transit

Sometimes, when travelling, the places that I imagined don't fulfill my expectations. At those moments, I feel in transit - like I am moving through, passing by, a stranger in a strange land with no business but to move forward. Now is one of those times.

We tried to go trekking in Northern Laos, but after having spoken to a few terrible salesmen (one of them drunk) who made Laos sound like the Dan Ryan Woods, we decided to get back to Thailand as fast as possible. The nicest and jolliest Thai man gave us a free 8-hour ride to Chiang Mai out of the kindness of his heart, saving us close to $30 and hours upon hours of travel time.

Chiang Mai was nice, nothing to write home about, so I won't. Sukhothai - ancient Thai ruins where we stopped on the way back to B'kok - were underwhelming compared to the Ankorians they conquered centuries ago.

Moving along, pressing on, looking forward.

The next legs of our trip loom excitingly on the horizon, like we are at the outset of an entirely new adventure. We fly to India on Sunday where we'll see throngs of women in Saris and ride camels in the desert, tour the Taj Mahal, go on tiger safaris and wander through the pink, golden, white and blue cities of Rajasthan. After a month or so there, we'll fly back to Bangkok and spend some time at the Highland Farm Gibbon Refuge, getting to know our primate relatives. Lastly, on to paradise! Southern Thailand, home to some of the best and last remaining intact coral reefs in the world. We'll sleep in secluded cabins plopped on the shores of tiny white-sand islands and float in warm crystal-clear azure waters hovering above rainbow-worlds of coral and tropical fish and maybe even whale sharks.

As we loaf in our homey room in Bangkok, I feel like I did as a child right before a vacation I had been dreaming about: relaxed, comfortable, but on the edge of something fantastic and unimaginable.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

lovely lao

A poor but relatively sparsely populated country, Lao is an eruption of sensory stimuli. Like an onion, each layer you peel off has a stronger impact -- and might even make you cry a little. We arrived at the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge border crossing after our night train from Bangkok pulled into the station roughly 6 hours late. Considerably spry after crossing the border on foot, we watched the other tourists pay exorbitant prices to hop in personal jumbo tuk-tuks while we nestled in the back of a 50 cent bus with the locals. After a few stops to let out the older women and their live chickens, we arrived in capital city Vientiane.

There are a surprising number of NGOs working in Lao, and Vientiane is crawling with United Nations Land Rovers and do-gooders with fair trade tshirts walking hurriedly around. As a side effect of this, there is *the most incredible food* we have found on our trip thus far. For under ten dollars you can have a huge french steak with pommes frites and a 40 oz beerlao and a large pizza with the works and a crepe suzette for dessert. Bummed about missing Thanksgiving, I was yearning for something vaguely reminiscent of home. Lucky me, I found a place serving a turkey sandwich with cranberries and stuffing; to top it off, they were playing Christmas music amid dangling shiny ornaments. Satiated and nostalgic, we moved on to the old French colonial town of Luang Prabang.

Palm trees loiter around whitewashed french mansions with opened shutters, saffron-robed monks collect alms beneath blooming azaleas, little kittens purr for attention at my feet and I enjoy my lusciously thick spaghetti carbonara amid broad-leafed houseplants twisted with white christmas lights. Oh, but I am sure your Thursday evening was nice too. Enjoying perfect (mid 70s and sunny) weather, we ambled through the streets, discovering historical Wats that house different sects of buddhist monks. We returned in the evening to listen to the monks' nightly chanting, their solemn repetitions bouncing off of the large gold buddha in the temple and into the evening sky.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

safety in bangkok

We arrived on Thanksgiving Day in Bangkok after a 12 hour bus ride from Siem Reap. Weary and a bit nervous about the political situation here, we trudged towards the backpacker district not sure what we'd find. Not surprisingly, all was well in perpetually-adolescent backpackerland: party buses and funny tshirts for sale, cheap food stalls and grown white men lying in the streets yaking or sobbing, depending on the type of alcohol they drank, I assume.

The next few days we spent seeing the gaudy royal palace, a giant golden reclining buddha, some famous wats and enjoyed eating. On our tree-lined mostly pedestrian street stood food stalls with freshly made pad thai for less than a dollar and concocted-as-you-stand fruit shakes for 60 cents. Oh, a budget traveler's heaven!

As for the supposedly chaotic airport hold-up here, it clearly did not effect anything we had planned to see or do. Just like the 1968 DNC riots in Chicago, I am sure the people in Beverly managed to make it through unscathed. Protests happen, they usually have particular objectives and those must be taken account of. These protesters are not trying to physically harm tourists (like the terrorists in India were), they just want to force to government to pay attention to them by inconveniencing a lot of loud whiny westerners which would get the attention of their home media organizations.

I know from watching CNN here that it seems like a scary situation, but it must be put into perspective: in the US, several people died and women miscarried in WalMarts on Black Friday being stomped to death by angry shopping mobs. Exactly zero foreigners have died in Bangkok from these protests. You had a better chance of being hurt shopping the day after Thanksgiving than I did watching the overgrown boys in cargo shorts and backwards baseball hats throw back shots here in Bangkok.