Sunday, May 2, 2010

20. To the islands

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia
When I booked my flight with Malaysia Airlines from Auckland to Delhi return, I was told there would be a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Perfect, I thought. I figured I would need a few days on a beach with lots of sun and good eating to recover from my month in the mountains of India. I could extend my stopover on my way home by a few days and head to an island somewhere in either Malaysia or Thailand.
When I first came to Malaysia in 2002, one place I didn’t go due to the monsoon season was a word of mouth destination my travelling buddy Steve had recommended – the Perhentian Islands. So I hit ol’ Steve up on the ol’ email to ask him what he thought:
Hi Steve, long time no hear. 
I’m off to India for a month on Friday, my first time there.
On the way back I’m stopping over in Malaysia, and I decided to stick around there for a few days. I remember back in the day when we were in Thailand you told me about the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia – sounded nice, worth a visit? I decided to extend my stay in Malaysia to 5 days based solely on a hazy recommendation from you to visit those islands!
...
Refresh my memory – what’s your opinion on the Perhentian Islands? Hmm, maybe I’ll just catch a cheap flight up to Phuket and go hang out at Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
...
Hasta luego, Matt
And Steve’s response:
hey matt! good to hear from you!
the perhentian island are well worth a visit. possibly the most beautiful place i went in malaysia. we went snorkling and swam with giant turtles, sharks, and all kind of wonderful sealife you could think of. no need to scuba dive there. the waters are shallow and crystal clear! there were loads of small, uninhabited beaches to get away from it all too. maybe different nowadays, although it is a national park cos of the turtle breeding beaches, but you never know. the locals are muslim, so yeah the rule is no alcohol. however when i was there the locals drank more than the tourists! once their off the mainland they change the traditional muslim garb for beachwear and drink for their lives! that said, i have heard rumours that the police had cleaned the place up (not that it was that messy for a westerner, just the religious police). when i was there the police used to come every now and again and urine test the locals for drugs and alcohol.
...
they sell hard alcohol by the bottle, but its pricy. you're best visiting a chinese shop on the mainland to stock up before you go. the booze isn't on show in the chinese stores, but if you ask for it they have it in the back out of sight. respect for the local religion, etc. all in all, if it were me going back i'd deffo choose these islands over thailand any day!
All right, so with Steve’s recommendation confirmed I booked an Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bahru. From the Kota Bahru airport it was a 70 ringgit (NZ$30) 1 hour taxi ride to the town of Kuala Bessut, and from there a 35 ringgit speedboat ride to the islands.
malaysia map
There we are, right at the top of Malaysia on the east coast. Very close to Thailand.
The speedboat ride was probably the fastest I’ve been on the water. The young guys who drive them sometimes let the testosterone get to their heads and start racing each other. Listen to the 2 x 200Hp V6 engines scream:
Let me quickly insert here that my month in India wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. After all, I didn’t do that much travelling around and I was lucky enough to stay in family homes with Bruce for most of it. Sure, the last few days getting to Agra to see the Taj had been rough and I’m glad I didn’t spend my entire month travelling around like that. I’d lost a little bit of weight due to the constant diarrhoea one expects in India (I probably had the shits for about half my trip) but I was feeling pretty good and already had a suntan going on.
But I already had the trip booked in and I was looking forward to hitting the beach before going back to the start of NZ’s winter. I stayed at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil Island, which was rumoured to be the party beach. On arrival it was just what the doctor ordered:
Perhentian - 06 -
White sand, crystal clear water, temperature about 32°C. If anything the water was too warm, so warm that you’d never cool off. But that’s just being picky! It was lovely. The surf on that first day was completely flat and I assumed every day would be the same.
That night I went out and got talking with an English barman – quite a lot of Westerners work on the island for a season as waitresses or dive instructors – and he told me that that night (Saturday) was a big party and that quite a lot of Malaysians from KL had come over just for that night. I was keen to stay out but was too tired from all the travelling.
Perhentian - 07 -
The islands are in a marine reserve so fishing etc is banned, as is new building which has kept development low. There’s no power to the island – each hotel runs its own generator, usually only at night. So sleeping in gets hard when the power cuts out at 7am – no power means no fan so the bungalow gets damn hot by about 8am.
Accommodation is expensive by SE Asian standards – 45 ringgit (US$15) for a tiny bungalow with bed, mosquito net, fan and power 12 hours a day. I’m not sure what the going rate in Thailand is these days, but I’d expect it to be around US$5 for something similar.
Perhentian - 08 -
Bungle in the jungle

Well that night a storm blew up and it was cloudy and windy and the sea totally rough the next day. Completely different from the previous day. Local surfers were out catching waves.
Perhentian - 02 - Surf
The next day was even worse – it rained non-stop til about 3 in the afternoon. I didn’t mind too much though, since it was cool so I slept in til after lunch.
Perhentian - 01 - Rain

Snorkelling

By the fourth day the weather had cleared up enough that we could go on a snorkelling trip. A boat takes you around various snorkelling spots and everything about it was great. Good masks, warm water so you never want to get out, and lots to see. First stop was shark point where we saw a whole bunch of reef sharks from 1m-2m in length. I dived down to try and swim with them but they’re quite fast moving. That was the first time I’d seen a shark in the water.
An Indian guy I met, Nikhal, later told me a great story about his snorkelling trip. The guide took a piece of bread down which he’d hold in his hand and small fish would swarm. He’d catch one of them and swiftly snap it in two. Then he’d dangle it in front of the sharks. The sharks would circle around and around them waiting for the fish. The guide seemed to know what he was doing though and would act aggressive enough to keep the sharks at bay.
Next stop was turtle bay, and our boat circled around until the driver spotted a turtle. We found a huge one – more than a metre long and a metre wide. I dove down underneath him and saw him swimming along with a couple of cleaner fish clinging to his belly. He even did a poop in front of us.
Perhentian - 03 - Lena Anna Lou Charlie Emilie Anna Antony
After that we went to like 3 more spots. At one of them there were heaps and heaps of tropical fish like you’d see in an aquarium, which were going nuts swarming us looking for bread. I got bitten like 4 times with little nibbles which were fine when you’d seem them nibble your fingers, but it was rather alarming when you’d suddenly feel a bite on your back which you didn’t see coming!
Of course the coral formations were amazing too. Charlie, one of the guys on our trip was a really good swimmer and I’d follow him when I could. My lungs weren’t as strong as his and I couldn’t equalise very well though so my ears would get sore with the pressure. But because of the relaxing temperature of the warm water I could stay under longer than I can in the cold water of NZ. At one point Charlie swam down and found a bunch of clownfish (aka Nemo) nestling in anemones. I dove down and joined him, and they’re very docile – you could easily coax them into the palm of your hand.
It was so far the best snorkelling I’ve experienced, and great value too at 40 ringgit (US$12) for the entire trip, including gear.
Perhentian - 04 - Antony Anna Emilie Matt Charlie Lena Lou

Partying

There’s quite a good party scene on the island too, although it’s more restrained than the islands of Thailand - no Full Moon bucket parties then. Mostly because alcohol is so comparatively expensive in Malaysia. A small can of beer was 10 ringgit. Hip flasks of spirits were available for around 20 ringgit. The local drink of choice was “Orang Utan”, aka Monkey Juice. At only 25% alcohol it goes down quite nicely straight from the bottle, or on the rocks.
Perhentian - 18 - Monkey juice
We had some great nights partying on the island. I met up with some Chileans and some Spanish guys and got to practice my Spanish again. After a night on the piss with them I woke up the next morning dreaming and thinking in Spanish. The Chileans moved on but the Spaniards stuck around so I hung out with them a fair bit.
After the snorkelling trip I got my “baby guitar” (as Coco from Madrid called it) out and Charlie had his guitar out and along with the four Swedish girls from the snorkelling we had some great singalongs. As well as some great old school metal jams. Man, this one Spanish guy, Javier, absolutely shredded. We played One by Metallica from beginning to end, with me doing rhythm on the baby guitar and him cranking out the solos note for note. Likewise for Fade to Black.

That’s all folks

So that was it. I was sad to leave the island after five fun days and nights and having made a few friends. It was a fitting end to what has been an awesome, memorable trip.
Hope you enjoyed reading about it
Matt
2 May 2010
 Sunset on the Perhentian Islands

Saturday, May 1, 2010

19. The Taj Mahal

Agra, India

Many of you probably already know the story of the Taj Mahal. Back in the 1600s, emperor Shah Jahan’s 3rd wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. So grief stricken was he that his hair was said to have turned white almost overnight. He commissioned the best architects and craftsmen in the land to work on her mausoleum. The result is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

What many of you may not know is that as construction of the Taj dragged on and its costs spiralled upwards, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb overthrew him, so Shah Jahan spent the last 8 years of his life under house arrest, looking out the window at his monument to his love for his dead wife. Which is why it’s known as “a monument to love”.

From that first glimpse of it from my hotel I was amazed. Everyone knows what the Taj looks like, it’s one of the world’s icons like the pyramids in Egypt. So it was cool to be seeing it with my own eyes.

Taj Mahal - 04
The 4 entrance gates to the Taj are impressive buildings themselves. This is the south gate. 

Bhang bhang

My plan for that first afternoon was to find a hotel (check), find a rooftop restaurant (check), find a bhang lassi, and with my lassi enjoy the sunset over the Taj Mahal.

A lassi is yogurty milkshake available in a variety of fruit flavours, mango, banana, etc. A bhang lassi is a lassi which contains bhang, which you might know by its more common name of marijuana. Back in the 60s when the hippies started coming to India, bhang lassis were the cocktail du jour, but I’d never had one and never seen them on the menu. But I’d heard you could still get them at the cafes in Agra near the Taj Mahal.

My lassi quest was cut short though, when a money changer told me that the Taj Mahal was closed on Friday, the next day. I couldn’t believe that the taxi driver and the hotel staff hadn’t told me that already, since I’d told them all I was planning on visiting the Taj the next day.

It was already 4pm so I headed straight to the Taj Mahal complex to get inside. There were hundreds of Indians queuing up to get through the usual security checks – metal detectors and vigorous pat-downs.

Once inside the place was crawling – mostly with Indian tourists.

Taj Mahal - 06

Still, the complex itself is huge so it’s easy to find some space and even a quiet patch of grass to relax on and enjoy the scene. I spent a couple of hours there, mostly staring at the Taj Mahal and admiring its details and its symmetry.

Taj Mahal - 10

I stayed there until sunset and watched the Taj change colour from white to yellow to gray.

Taj Mahal - 25

Taj Mahal - 20
The long queue to go inside the Taj Mahal

I joined the crazy long queue to go inside the Taj itself, but inside there’s not much to see. It’s really dark inside and in the center is Mumtaz’s cenotaph.

Taj Mahal - 16

Taj Mahal - 17
The west gate 

One funny thing about the Indian tourists is that they all line up for a photo but no one smiles. My friend Barnaby wrote an article about this. His hypothesis was that Indians keep it real. I dunno. They seemed to be having a good time at the Taj, but the smiles would erase and they’d look extremely bored when they’d pose for a photo.

Taj Mahal - 18
C’mon, smile! You’re at the freakin’ Taj Mahal!

I really enjoyed my visit to the Taj. Despite being crowded I still found it peaceful. The hassles from vendors selling crap souvenirs outside the gates melt away when you’re inside. I love how symmetrical the design is, and marvelled at the attention to detail and the amount of work that went into it 400 years ago.

Bhang on

I left the Taj and walked back towards my hotel. Along the way a waiter beckoned me into his restaurant, and I asked him if he had any special lassis. “Sure my friend, of course, anything is possible ha ha”. And there they were on the menu, “Special Lassi”. When I sat down and ordered one, the waiter made sure I knew what I was getting - “You want a bhang lassi?”. It took an eternity to arrive, and I downed it and knew that it would probably take an hour or two to kick in. Well about 3 hours later I felt a slight twinge, but that might have been the beer I was drinking or the sleep deprivation of the previous night. By now it was about 10pm and I fell asleep anyway. Verdict: a dud. So next time I’ll have to ask for an extra strong special lassi.

Agra Fort

The next day I went to Agra Fort, which was the palace of Emperor Shah Jahan while he reigned (and his father previously). My favourite part was the fountain around which the ladies of his 300 strong harem would bathe - “topless concubine ladies” as my guide put it. Adjoining that was the royal bedroom, naturally.

Agra Fort - 01

Agra Fort - 04
The royal bedroom
Agra Fort - 03
Translucent marble glowing yellow

After Shah Jahan was overthrown by his own son, he was kept under house arrest in another part of the palace, from where he could mournfully see the Taj Mahal 2km away. Presumably it wasn’t as smoggy back then.

Agra Fort - 10

Back to Delhi

I needed to be back in Delhi by about 6pm to catch a 9pm flight. Unfortunately there were no AC buses and the trains didn’t leave til 4 or 5pm so I wouldn’t make my flight on time.

I also didn’t have 2000 rupees to spend on a taxi, as I had a little bit of rupees left but I didn’t want to change another US$100 bill because that would leave me with way too many rupees and it’s not easy to change them back.

So a travel agent had a unique solution – we’d share the taxi to Delhi as he also wanted to go, but we’d first do a bit of shopping in Agra along the way. i.e. visit various shopping malls, where I would feign interest in the wares, and the taxi driver would get commission for taking me there, which would help pay our fare to Delhi. I was a bit reluctant as it can be difficult to say no to the salesmen, but I gave it a go.

Well, the plan backfired on me in the end, as the 3rd place we went to accepted credit cards so I went a bit nuts buying a bag and a shirt at ridiculous tourist prices, simply because I could use my plastic rather than have to change rupees. Oh well.

The rest of the trip back to Delhi was a blast. Cruising in the AC taxi talking shit in the back with Ravi (not his real name), stopping for beers and smoking up a storm. He was a really funny guy and had a ton of stories, unfortunately I can’t remember many of them now.

Indian family life

A recurring question here is do you have children? No? Why not? (Is this guy gay? is what they are thinking). Here having children is very much a part of being a man.

As Bruce explained it to me, the typical way of life is to have an arranged marriage in your early 20s but keep living in your parent’s house. Have kids quickly, and your parents will help raise them. Many of the guys in their mid-20s still act like they’re 18 or 19 – they still go out drinking and partying.

Finally, when you’re actually ready to have kids yourself, say in your 40s, well by then your children will be having kids under your roof, so you can have a hand in raising them.

The whole system is quite efficient if you think about it – you get to have your kids when you’re young and fit and virile, but you don’t really have to bother raising kids until you’re older, wiser, and richer, when you raise your grandchildren.

So when I usually say that I’m not ready to settle down with one girl for the rest of my life and that I want to have a few girlfriends first, the answer is “ah ok”. But after a few beers, the unguarded Indian response might be “So what? I have my wife, but I also have a couple of girlfriends.”

Ravi (from my ride back to Delhi) is separated from his wife, but they still get on as friends. But what she and no one else in his family knows is that he has a girlfriend, and they’ve been trying to get pregnant for the last while. Why? Cos they really love each other and he doesn’t have any kids with his wife so his girlfriend wants to give him one. And now, thanks to IVF, they’ve got triplets on the way! But it’s a big secret which he’s been trying to get off his chest to the rest of his family! Good luck with that mate.

Monday, April 26, 2010

18. Chasing the weather

After 5 days enjoyable days in the backpacker scene in Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj & Bhagsu), I was rather itching to get back to the paragliding training before I’d forget everything I’d learnt, and before I’d lose my fitness. So I headed back to Bir on the Enfield. Before setting off I tried to buy insurance for the bike so I wouldn’t have to bribe the cops again, but I couldn’t because it was a Saturday. Fortunately the cops weren’t at the checkpoint though.

Back in Bir and paragliding was still banned for another 3 days, so we headed north again to Manali in the hope that the weather would soon clear there so that I could have my first high flight.

map of hp

Back to Manali

This time we borrowed a car and this time I drove most of the journey. Now although it’s only 235km from Bir to Manali, I haven’t really explained how much of a bitch of a drive it is. The entire journey is windy and the first half very potholed. Most of it is spent in 3rd gear. If a bus is coming the other way, you will have to go onto the dirt verge so that it can get past. At any point you could come around a corner and find anything in your lane, from a herd of goats, a cow, or a bus overtaking a truck and coming towards you. For this reason, Indians drive very shanti (slowly). If you drove at Indian villager pace the trip would probably take 7 or 8 hours. I drove faster than that (no one ever passed me), but it’s tiring because you have to be alert for all of the above, as well as the numerous potholes and rough patches. It’s a very active drive, constantly accelerating and decelerating and weaving between potholes. So the whole trip takes like 6 hours with a lunch break.

So back in Manali and unfortunately for the next 2 days the weather didn’t clear. On the 2nd day I got a couple of short practice flights at Solang but it was more of the same, we were still keen for me to have a high flight.

So back to Bir again

Bruce had some business to take care of in Manali and once that was done and with the weather not looking promising we yet again drove the 6 hours back to Bir, knowing that the paragliding ban in Bir would be lifted the next day.

I was running out of time on my trip too – I was due to fly out from Delhi in 3 more days, but I wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Taj Mahal too. Everything depended on the weather. If the weather cleared, I could have my first high paragliding flight, change my airline ticket to a couple of days later and get maybe 3 days of high paragliding in and then go back to NZ with a good 10 hours of flying time in my logbook (yes, I have to keep a paragliding logbook just like a pilot). Or even if the weather was shit, I could change my flight anyway and hope that it cleared and still maybe get one or two days paragliding in.

I decided fuck it – we’d given it our best possible shot, and if it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be. I wouldn’t change my ticket unless the weather was clear the very next day, which was my last scheduled day in Bir. If God or the universe or whatever doesn’t want me to have my first high flight in India then so be it, it’s for a reason.

Unfortunately the weather didn’t clear the next day. At one point at about 1pm it looked promising, and Petie thought it would be worth a shot. But Bruce the local was like, well yeah, maybe if you’re on the takeoff right now ready to go, you’d get a short flight in. But it’ll take an hour for us to get up to the takeoff spot and by that time the weather could be doing anything. And he was right – within the hour a monsoon-like storm rolled in and raindrops the size of grapes were pouring down, along with pea-sized hailstones!

Back to Delhi

We’d tried booking me an air-conditioned bus back to Delhi for that night, but Bruce’s travel agent friend said don’t bother – it would cost us an extra 50 rupees (NZ$2) to book ahead, the only thing we needed to do was turn up at the bus station at 5:20pm to buy a ticket for the 5:30pm bus. And if we missed that one then there was another an hour later.

Well guess what. We arrived late at 5:32pm and the bus had already left. So then we had a hair raising drive to the next town to try and catch up with the bus there. When we arrived there we found out that the A/C bus had left at 5pm and that it was booked out well in advance. Awesome.

Crazy local bus rides

I’ve taken many many shit bus rides over the years. I’ve been squished into all sorts of seats, been surrounded by ducks or goats, had my hairy Western leg hairs tugged on by curious locals, ridden on top of trucks, over all sorts of twisty bumping roads, all throughout SE Asia and South America. Crazy local bus rides are part of what makes travelling fun, exciting and rewarding.

08-32 Matt rooftop riding
On top of a truck with bags of rice in Flores, Indonesia, 2002

My main rule of thumb though is to take my crazy local bus rides during the day. You get to see and smell the countryside and the local people en route. If it’s at night you miss all that, and it’s so uncomfortable that sleeping is difficult if not impossible.

Now since I’d just missed the only air-conditioned bus of the day, all of a sudden I was faced with taking a non-A/C bus 12 hours to Delhi overnight. Did I mention that the Delhi area has had the hottest April in 50 years, with temperatures over 40°C? A packed bus ride from the mountains into that sort of heat was not appealing. Especially since I’d dressed reasonably warmly as I’d been expecting A/C.

As it turned out though the heat wasn’t the main problem on the bus ride – with the windows down and at night it was reasonably cool. Far worse was the bumpy road and the local bus’ crap suspension. See, the big Volvo A/C buses have sweet suspension and you barely feel the bumps. The non-A/C buses have shit suspension and rattle and shake along every bump. And since I was getting on the bus at a later stop, the only available seats were at the rear of the bus where you feel the bumps even worse. In my seat I was literally bounced out of it with air time more than once. Sleep was of course impossible.

13-12 Matt on truck 
Nice sunglasses dude. On the back of a ute in Cambodia, 2002. I’m using the same backpack (with the same guitar inside) on this India trip

When we finally stopped for a dinner at 11pm, once I was out of the bus and on stable ground I literally had sea-legs and was wobbling around because I was so used to the constant shaking. Honestly, in all my years of travelling this was the most uncomfortable the worst bus ride I’d ever taken.

In Delhi again

Oh boy. You know you’re getting close to Delhi because the sickly sweet smell of sewer hits you about half an hour before arrival. I arrived at the Delhi bus station at 5:30am. The easy option would have been to catch another bus from the bus station to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), about 4 hours southward. But I hadn’t yet taken a train in India, and a train ride in India is an essential experience.

With all the paragliding I’d gotten used to lugging a backpack (with a paraglider and harness inside) up and down hills. But on arrival in Delhi with its heat and the smog, my backpack felt like it weighed about 40kg and I was having major trouble breathing. My chest was heaving but it felt like the air I was breathing contained no oxygen. I sucked on an old expired rarely used asthma inhaler that I have but it had little effect. Maybe cos it was nearly empty. In this state I had to haul myself to a nearby subway station, queue up to by a subway ticket, get patted down and my pockets emptied by security, get my bag X rayed, catch the subway from Kashmere Gate to New Delhi subway, walk over the overpass to the New Delhi Train Station, and head to the foreigners ticket booth. I got there at about 6:30am, a sweaty heaving mess. Oh, the foreigners ticket office doesn’t open until 8am. Sigh.

The only other foreigners around were a Russian couple who had arrived in India the previous day. They’d told me that a local had told them that the foreigner’s ticket office is closed today because it’s a holiday. I believed them for a minute and then thought better of it, the local would have told them that to try to sell them a fake or overpriced ticket.

It’s quite a scene. As you can imagine, the New Delhi train station is constantly crawling with people – mostly other Indians who are buying tickets or sitting/sleeping on the floor with their luggage waiting for their train. But a lot of the people are loiterers who will spin you any line of bullshit to get you to try and buy a ticket from a travel agency so that they get commission. And buying a ticket from the station is quite daunting because there are so many queues depending on your destination. There’s also many classes (first, 2nd, etc) and arcane rules around ticket availability and prices for foreigners. One guy told me to buy a ticket for Agra from ticket booth number 62. While I was queuing there another local guy approached me and told me that only Indians can buy tickets from that queue, and that foreigners have to buy them from the foreigner’s ticket office upstairs, but since it’s closed I had to go get an emergency ticket from the counter outside. I was dubious, but to lend credence to his story just as I got to the front of the line and it was my turn to buy my ticket the cashier put up his closed sign and walked away. So this guy leads me all the way across the road to what turns out to be a travel agent. I sit down inside for a second because I’m fucked. Hot, sweaty, short of breath. And not happy about being led all the way here.

What a fucking mission.

I catch my breath and decide to camp outside the foreigner’s ticket office until it opens because that’s the only place where I can get a straight answer.

I wait the hour and a half until the foreigner’s ticket office opens, and when it finally does it’s amazingly nice inside. Probably the only place in the station which has A/C, and there’s actual couches to sit on while we queue, and the staff are very helpful. An amazing contrast to the mayhem in the rest of the station. But the clerk tells me that due to some nonsensical typical Indian rule, he can only sell me a ticket for trains that are going to depart no sooner than 4 hours from now. In other words, since it’s now 8am he can sell me a ticket for the 1pm train to Agra but he can’t sell me a ticket for the 10:30am train. I wasn’t in too big of a hurry to get to Agra, I just wanted to see the sun set over the Taj Mahal today, and I would do a tour of it the next day. But he said I could buy a ticket by going back down to booth 62, to not listen to anybody, and to buy my ticket for train 1068 from there. “Don’t listen to anybody!” I queue up and once it’s my turn I have to fill out and sign a form, and finally I have my ticket for the 10:30am train.

When the train pulls into the station I have no idea where my carriage is. The train is fucking long too, and I walk all the way to the end of it, before finding a conductor who tells me my carriage is at the front of the train. So I weave my way back along the platform between the people disembarking and embarking, the food vendors, the machine-gun toting Army soldiers, the people blocking the platform with their bags, the woman screaming and chasing a bag snatcher which draws everyone’s attention, the people crossing the tracks in front of another approaching train, in the heat, sweating and heaving, getting asthmatic now, fuck I just want to get to my A/C sleeper and catch my breath.

Finally, finally, I squeeze my way through my carriage with my giant backpack and find my seat/bed and I want to cry. Some of the beds are reasonably sized but my one is up against the curve of the roof and is narrow and much too short for me, plus where am I going to put my bag, I just can’t catch my breath and the A/C’s not strong enough it’s still so hot and I’m panting like a dog and fuck I need some fresh air so I step back outside but outside there’s no breeze and it’s hot as an oven Christ so I throw my bag up onto one end of my tiny bunk and lie at the other end and try to chill the fuck out.

After about ten minutes I’ve finally caught my breath and can better assess the situation. This lack of oxygen thing is affecting my coping ability. I put my bag on the floor under another one of the beds, and one of my carriage mates offers to switch beds with me since my bed is too short for me, which was nice of him. Eventually the A/C feels effective and I’m able to breathe again and I actually get an hour or so of sleep, which was well overdue. A meal arrives which everyone eats cross-legged on their beds. At one point I go between carriages to see what it’s like without the A/C, and man, when you put your head out the window it’s like a massive hair-dryer is blowing you in the face, such is the heat.

We arrive in Agra and I get a rickshaw to a hotel, and get my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant of my hotel.

Taj Mahal - 01

Aaaah. That feels better.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

17. To the cricket

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India

A cricket match in India… this should be exciting.

After bidding the Spanish speakers buenas noches, I headed down to another restaurant which was the last place open, and met up with some people I’d met earlier. We were soon joined by ten or so expats who didn’t look like part of the Indian backpacker trail. I asked them if they were going to the IPL cricket match the next day and they said they were covering it – it was part of the commentary and camera team.

We were the only other table in the restaurant and we soon joining in their discussions of India. One of the guys said they’d been to 25 cities in India and this was the first place they’d been able to see the stars at night cos of the haze/pollution.

We had quite a few laughs, the leader of the group was an English guy named Gavin and I think I recognised his voice from the cricket commentary. Another guy in the group was Pommie Mbangwa, and he was a crack up. His challenge at the last game was to slip “lemon meringue” into the commentary which he’d been able to do.

The IPL is quite a phenomenon. Take cricket-mad India. Rather than try and wean them off their cricket drug, let them go nuts and have a two month long cricket binge, with not one, but two Twenty20 matches every night, featuring the best local talent playing alongside some top international talent. It’s got to be great for young Indian cricketers. It seems like everyone wins – the players earn a shitload (it’s the 2nd highest-paid sports league after the NBA), the teams are all very profitable, and the cricket-mad Indian public get their cricket fix.

Anyway, so the next day I met up with a group of Australian guys and a local guy, Shami, who were keen to go to the cricket. Shami was organising us and although we already had tickets (650 rupees - NZ$20), our tickets didn’t have seat numbers so the first in would get the best seats. The game started at 8pm and Shami was adamant we’d have to leave at 3pm to get there early enough to get a good seat. I was doubtful – I knew it was a small stadium (capacity 21 000) so even if we were up the back we wouldn’t be far from the action. The commentary team had thought that arriving at 3pm was a great laugh since the gates don’t open until 5pm.

But Shami was the boss so we met up at 3pm. By the time everyone farted around we didn’t leave until 3:45pm and got to the ground at 4:30pm. As predicted, gates opened after 5pm so we had to queue up in the hot sun for a bit over half an hour, but the ridiculous thing was that the police would come along and make sure we were in single file. We’d be standing around in our group but then the police would come and we’d have to totally squish back into the line, chest to back and cock to ass with the guy in front. Of course it was all men too, and it was quite intimate. One of the Australian guys asked if anyone else was feeling “saustrophobic”.

Security at the ground was extremely tight. No drink bottles, food or electronic devices, which meant no cameras and no phones. An intimate pat down, empty pockets, through metal detectors, another pat down, over to the stand, another pat down, and we were in. Second row. Oh, and only 3 hours til the game starts.

The first shitter was that evidently you were allowed cameras and phones in but Shami had been told otherwise and made us leave ours at home. So none of us got photos of the game, unfortunately.

The ground itself was very picturesque – a huge view of the mountains is the backdrop. Again, no picture unfortunately. And that was about the only advantage of arriving as early as we did – we got to see the mountains in the background, because by the time the game started at 8pm it was too dark to see them, which was a shame for the TV audiences.

Here’s the best I could find on google:

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Before the game started about ten dudes were walking around carrying smoke machines – which evidently carried a really toxic smoke which killed mosquitoes and flies. It worked a treat but stunk pretty bad, but it didn’t help with the moths which were thick in the air.

The game was Australian-heavy Deccan Chargers vs. Punjab Kings XI. It was a home game for Punjab but I hadn’t heard of any of their players, and they are bottom of the IPL table, so I decided to cheer for the Australians and go for Deccan.

The atmosphere was good – but it wasn’t as crazy as I was expecting. Since we’re in India I was expecting madness – songs, threats, violence, similar to watching a football match in Argentina. But the truth is Himachal Pradesh isn’t really a cricket-mad state, the Dharamsala ground is relatively small, and the crowd didn’t really care who won, so long as a lot of sixes were hit.

It was good though – cheerleaders for both sides were scattered around the ground, and whenever a 6 was hit or a wicket was taken the corresponding team’s theme music would play, their American cheerleaders would dance, and actual fireworks would go off.

In the end Deccan won with 5 balls to spare, and the game finished around 11:30pm.

Update: well it seems the heavy security at the ground and the paragliding ban were justified, since a terrorist group let off multiple bombs at another IPL game in Bangalore only a day after the game I went to watch in Dharamsala. Scary.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

16. Around McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India

After going to the waterfall I went out to dinner in McLeod Ganj with a couple of girls I’d met there, and then we met up with some more people I knew from my hotel. We headed back to the same restaurant I’d been to the previous night, and this second night yet more cricketers turned up. So once again a heavy-weaponed police presence, and once again a crowd of waiting Indians outside. This time it was Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Hershelle Gibbs and young Australian Mitch Marsh. They all play for IPL team Deccan Chargers. I met Mitch Marsh, who I’d never heard of until I’d seen him playing on TV a few nights before. He’s only 18 and he was a nice guy, he didn’t mind moving into the light so that my iPhone camera with no flash would work.

Dharamsala - 08 - Matt Mitch Marsh

One weird thing about McLeod Ganj is that all the hotels have curfews, after which time they lock the doors and you have to ring a buzzer to wake up the angry nightwatchman. I thought my hotel’s curfew was early at 12am, but the others had curfews of 10:30pm and 11pm. Lame!

I was treating myself to a relatively expensive room (1000 rupees - NZ$30), yet I wasn’t getting much for my money. The hot tap in the shower came out boiling hot, and the cold tap was still searingly hot - it was impossible to have a shower. So I’d have to fill a bucket with the hot water, wait for it to cool down, and then scoop it over myself.

The other sucky thing was that my hotel had a bunch of Indian tourists staying, and they would be up at 4:30am talking, watching TV, or clanging Hindu prayer bells to wake the spirits up.

To Bhagsu

So after the second day of only 4 hours sleep I decided to move further up the hill away and out of McLeod Ganj into Bhagsu. Bruce has an old friend who owns a hotel there. It’s only a 2km walk from McLeod and only 5 mins on the motorbike.

Bhagsu was pleasant – less busy than McLeod and much more chilled out – and no hotel curfews. Not that that made much difference, since the restaurants would stop serving beers around midnight anyway. The stinker though was that it was packed full of Israeli backpackers. I usually get on fine with them, but they’re hard to get to know because they’re always in groups of 6 or 7 and not interested in meeting anyone else.

The pewl

To my surprise, Bhagsu has a public swimming pool.  I was entertaining fantasies of lounging by the pool working on my tan, surrounded by girls in bikinis, when I remembered that I’m in India and the only bathers would be Indian men in their Jockey underwear. And since I didn’t have a swimsuit I would be in my boxer shorts too. Before leaving my hotel I had the foresight to change out of my white boxer shorts into black ones.

When I arrived I was surprised to see plenty of Indian women present – mothers and sisters were there poolside watching their fathers and brothers attempting to swim. So I felt a little weird sliding my jeans off and stripping down to my boxers right next to this attractive and married Indian woman.

I sat in the sun for a while taking in the scene. It was quite odd. Firstly, some dudes hadn’t given too much forethought into the colour of their underwear and were wearing white undies. Dude – white cotton gets a bit transparent when it’s wet, ya know? Secondly, Indians can’t swim at all. I watched some young dudes have swimming races by swimming the width of the pool, and their stroke was a very aggressive doggy-paddle.

There were also quite a few young Tibetans present, and after they’d stripped off their crimson monk robes, some of those guys could almost swim properly. The freestyle stroke was there but the breathing wasn’t. I’m a pretty crap swimmer myself but I would have outswam everyone there. I realise that’s only because in NZ we’re surrounded by water and much of our holidays are spent at lakes and beaches so everyone knows how to swim. Plus it’s taught at school.

Despite being crowded it was probably the cleanest pool I’ve ever swum in. The water is constantly topped up by a cold water spring, so it didn’t need chlorine or anything.

Here’s a picture of the scene I snapped when I went back for a second swim later in the afternoon:

Bhagsu - 02 - Pool

Fortunately for you there’s a few pairs of shorts and no white undies present.

Drummer boy

As I was walking back to my hotel, I walked past a sign saying music lessons – singing, tabla, Indian classical, djembe. Hmm, djembe, eh? I’ve had a djembe drum sitting at home since my SE Asia trip in 2003, which I’ve always wanted to learn how to play. I just never got around to finding a teacher. So I booked in for a lesson. Check out my teacher, how cool is this guy:

I did my first lesson but then the teacher was a bit reluctant cos he thought it wasn’t enough time, and that I should stick around longer. I was pushed for time though because I felt like I needed to get back to Bir or Manali to get back into the paragliding. So I did a 2nd hour with him that day and 2 more the next day. After 4 hours of teaching I could do a couple of beats. Here’s one:

That night at a restaurant I met a whole bunch of Spanish speakers. It was cool – there were Argentines, French, Canadians, Spanish, Italians and of course Kiwi, but we were all speaking Spanish. Normally amongst such a diverse mix of travellers the lingua franca would of course be English, so it was a refreshing change especially for the native Spanish speakers! My Spanish has gotten a little rusty but it was great fun, and reminded me of the Sunday asados in Argentina where we would sit around smoking and drinking and laughing, often at my crazy gringo stories. Pozzy, Juan, les extra├▒o.

Bhagsu - 04 - Wendy Beto Matt

Bhagsu - 05 - Matt Noe Vivian

Monday, April 19, 2010

15. Off to Dharamsala

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India

As I mentioned in my last post, I haven’t been able to paraglide for the last week due to crap weather in Manali and crap politics in Bir.

To recap: due to the IPL cricket matches being held in Dharamsala, the authorities banned all paragliding in Bir for ten days before the matches and two days after them. Obviously the paragliding community in Bir are well pissed off. As were a large group of Russian paragliders who arrived in town on a package tour and were planning on spending a week in Bir. Having flown for 2 days to get here, they turned around and went home.

OK, fair enough, ban paragliding if you have to, but not for 12 fucking days. 2 days before and 1 day after seems sensible enough. And next time, give us a couple of weeks notice that the ban will be in effect, not one day’s notice. Dumbasses.

On the road

Here’s a map so you get an idea of where I am.

map of india

map of hp

Wow, that’s actually the first time I’ve seen where I’ve been travelling on a map. I had no idea that we travel south such a long way to go between Bir and Manali. No wonder it takes 5 hours.

Anyway, on this journey I’m travelling northwest from Bir to Dharamsala. It’s only about 63km, but the roads are narrow, potholed and twisty so the trip takes about an hour and a half (that’s an average speed of 40km/h), or so I’ve been told.

Dharamsala - 11 - Enfield

Bribing the police

In my case the trip took a lot longer, because half an hour into my trip I was stopped at a police checkpoint. Although my license and registration were in order the insurance wasn’t.

The cop pulls out a huge form and starts filling it out. As we’re about halfway through the form he asks me: “So, do you want to settle this now?”. How much is it? “1000 rupees”. 1000 rupees? That’s a lot. That’s dinner for 4 people in a decent restaurant. Or one night in a better than average hotel (2 nights in an average hotel). More importantly, that’s ten times the normal bribe. And what happens if we do it the official way? “Well, the court will post a fine to your address in New Zealand and we’ll confiscate your license and <something I don’t understand>”. Fine, let’s do it the official way then. “Are you sure you don’t want to settle this now?”. Yes. “Are you SURE you don’t want to settle this now?”. Yes. “OK then”.

Dharamsala - 01 -

So the cop carried on filling out the large form (“What’s your father’s name?”) and while doing that I called Bruce and told him what was happening. He was surprised I was being asked for a 1000 rupee baksheesh (bribe), but that I should just pay it. I asked him why – I didn’t care if they posted a fine to my NZ address. He said cos they’d confiscate the bike if I don’t settle it now. Oh. That must have been the bit I didn’t understand.

So I go back to the cop and ask him how much the fine is. “1000 rupees”. I sigh and pull out my wad of cash and I’ve only got 750 rupees on me. He wouldn’t take it though. “1000 rupees”. Greedy fucker. I tell him I’ll have to call a friend in Bir to bring me the rest of the money. “Call him”.

Dharamsala - 02 -

I didn’t have to call anyone - I had more money in my pack, but my pack was well strapped to the bike and it would take me half an hour to take it off, get the money out and put it back on again. Sigh.

I gave him the 1000 rupees which he counted out and gave to another one of the cops, who put it straight into his wallet. Another cop came along and he pulled out his wallet again and gave the other cop half. Right in front of me. They wrote me a receipt and sent me on my way.

Dharamsala - 02b - Ticket censored

I tried to calm myself down by rationalising that it was only 1000 rupees (NZ$30) but I was still pissed off. Other drivers were only paying 100 rupees – I saw that happening. Another guy I know had no registration, no insurance and no helmet and got away with paying 500 rupees.

I was more pissed off with Bruce for having no insurance though. It meant I’d have to be on my toes for the rest of the trip and I’d probably have to pay the same bribe on the way back too.

In Dharamsala McLeod Ganj

Dharamsala was a lot bigger than I was expecting. It’s a large sprawling city at the base of a mountain. I was heading up the hill to the outer suburb of McLeod Ganj, which is the official residence of the Dalai Lama and home of the Tibetan government in exile. It’s also a popular traveller hangout.

Indeed, there were plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from and lots of travellers around the place. It was a nice change to be meeting new people on my own for once – everyone else I’d previously met in India were Bruce’s friends.

Lots of people were in McLeod Ganj for a week or more – doing yoga classes, Buddhist classes, art classes, jewellery making, volunteering etc, or just escaping the summer heat and chillin’ in the mountains.

That first night I went to a nice restaurant for dinner, and a small group of famous cricketers came into the same restaurant. The only one I recognised was Australian Brett Lee. I got a “how are ya mate” from him but that was as close as I bothered to get. After all, they’re Australian cricketers and if they were in NZ I wouldn’t bother to talk to them, so I didn’t bother here either.

The police presence was heavy, and meanwhile a crowd of Indians was gathering outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the players eating dinner or leaving the restaurant.

Dharamsala - 04 -

Dharamsala - 03 -

Dalai Lama

The next morning I went and visited the main temple in town which is the residence of the Dalai Lama. He happened to be on his way back from yet another overseas junket so I got to see his motorcade enter the complex. The crowd had been waiting for at least an hour for him to arrive so I expected to hear them cheering and clapping when he finally arrived. Instead they barely waved and stood in near silence, but he was smiling and waving out the window.

Waterfall

Later that day I headed off to a nearby waterfall. It was a half hour motorbike ride up some really rough roads, so rough that I turned back twice to make sure I was going the right way. From the end of the road it was a half hour walk through the forest. It was nice – not that much of a waterfall, a river ran down a hill and every so often was a drop off and a pool of clear water.

Waterfall - 02

Since we’re in the mountains the water was icy cold. And since I was not planning on swimming in India I hadn’t bought any swimwear. I’d been trying to find some in town but its non-existent. Any locals I’d ask would say “Swimwear? Don’t worry about it, just swim in your underwear”.

Anyway, the water was so bone-chillingly cold that a quick in-out was all that was needed. Once out of the water I was good to lie on the rocks in the sun for about 2 hours, to defrost and heat up again.

Waterfall - 01

Waterfall - 06

Waterfall - 05 - Natasha Mimi

Waterfall - 09 - Monkey

Friday, April 16, 2010

14. So, how’s the paragliding going?

Dharamasala, Himachal Pradash, India

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The last time I mentioned the paragliding, I’d just gotten the hang of reverse launching from the top of Solang Nala in Manali. I posted a video of my second ever flight and received some good feedback on it from you guys. That was Lesson 6.

I spent 2 more days doing the same thing – walking to the top, launching off and flying down. I’d only do about 5 flights per day before I’d be stuffed from walking back up the hill, or before the wind direction would change (note: you must take off and land a paraglider into the wind). In the beginning Bruce was supervising my take offs by making sure my lines were untangled and then telling me what to do during launch (”hands up, left, etc”) but I was soon able to do it all by myself while Bruce watched from below.

Bruce was pleased with my progress and so was I. Other observers remarked that I was doing well too. I’ve got the hang of taking off so now the next step in my training is a longer flight, so that I have enough time and space to play with the paraglider in the air. For that I will take off from somewhere high, and Bruce will be at the landing site on the radio talking me down.

At Manali there are plenty of high flights, but at the moment the wind is strong so it’s a bit risky for a beginner like me. More advanced pilots and tandem pilots can fly though.

So we decided to head back to Bir, and that I would do 'my first high flight from Billing – yes Tim, “the big guy”. You might remember that Billing was where I did my tandem ride with Bruce, and that I found it a bit scary. But that’s cos it was quite a rough day, I would only takeoff from Billing if the conditions were just right, i.e late in the afternoon.

Terrorists

We were all set to head back to Bir so that I could do my first high flight, when we got word that paragliding was banned in Bir for ten days. Why? Terrorists. Apparently intelligence agencies received reports (months ago) that Al Qaeda terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taibar has bought a bunch of paragliders and there’s a possibility that they could use one to deliver a suicide bomber. Nearby Dharamsala is set to host two IPL cricket matches on April 16 and 18, and it’s possible to paraglide from Bir to Dharamsala. So as a precaution they banned all paragliding from Bir for ten days before the cricket! Just like that.

So with paragliding banned in Bir, and the strong Rotang wind blowing in Manali, there’s nowhere for a beginner like me to have my first high flight.

So for the last 6 days I’ve been playing a waiting game – either waiting for the wind to die down in Manali, or waiting for the cricket to finish in Dharamsala. It’s been nice though – Bruce lent me his motorbike and I’ve spent the last few days in Dharamsala hanging out with other backpackers. Tonight I’m going to watch the cricket here – Punjab Kings XI vs. Deccan Chargers, which you can apparently watch live for free on youtube. More on Dharamsala later…

Still, a 6 day break is a bit too long and I’m itching to get paragliding again before I lose my fitness and/or get rusty.

PS. Thanks for the feedback by email and on Facebook, that helps to keep me motivated to write this. Even better is if you post a comment here right below.