Friday, 27 February 2009

Wonder Girls and Dancing Queens

It is very hot and humid in Bangkok at the moment, it's almost too uncomfortable.

Coming from Kolkata, Bangkok seems like a different planet, actually more a different universe.

It is a universe of broad highways with no pot holes, with working traffic lights. I remember thinking in the past that the air here was dirty, a layer of smog seemed to cover the city then, but either it's no longer the case or compared to Kolkata it just feels suddenly cleaner.

I have come to realise that Bangkok is very underrated. People fly into its airport and then head down to the islands or up to Chang Mai or at most spend a day visiting the Grand Palace and all the nearby temples. In the last two days I have walked around the town, just enjoying its buzz, the street life.

The people here don't seem to have a home, they all eat out at the million street stalls, or just sit outside chatting away, watching their children play. You can even get your clothes mended, or as in my case your bag, by ladies that sit on the sidewalk with their sowing machine...

I did visit the Grand Palace, even though I'd been there only in October. It is the holiest site in Thailand, the home of the Emerald Buddha. I asked the Buddha to look after one of my friend's mother as she is going into hospital in the next few days.

In some parts the Palace feels like a Toy City, like a very odd Legoland...

I took the rest of the morning to walk around the different temples, and also had a look at the Ramayana murals. A collection that extends over a kilometre and depicts the life of Buddha. I overheard one of the guides explaining the story of the King Monkey, and saying that to protect the city it puts it inside it's mouth. I am sure i missunderstood half of what I heard, but I love the mural itself.

Around the temples there are large vases filled with water and flowers. People dip lotus buds in the water for good luck, and this lotus flower had opened up.

The whole place is extraordinary, an explosion of colour and light, and lots and lots of people.

Are there any Japanese left in Japan or were they all in Bangkok's Grand Palace today?

I have started to meet people while I am travelling alone. Lara, the mad Korean chick as I call her, has been travelling for four years and is a well of cheap travel knowledge. I will probably see her again in Laos.

I also met a Swedish guy, Matti, who, was explaining to me over several cheap Thai beers that in Sweden they teach you knitting in school...either it was the heat or the beer but for a while I thought, yes, now I finally understood where ABBA came from, what 'Dancing Queen' was all about...

I have also discovered what the big thing in Thailand is at the moment...Wonder Girls! Don't know who the hell they are, but good God they look camp...

And I experienced first hand the hysteria they awake in people. They were doing a press conference by one of the main shopping malls in town and hundreds of people were packing the streets. I didn't stay to see the girls. They weren't due til 7 and this was the scene at 3, with 4 hours still to go. I couldn't face the screaming that was going to come later.

Here's what all the fuss is about...

Off to Chang Mai to cross over to Laos, so another night sleeping on a train...

Thursday, 26 February 2009


My last day in India, but also one of my first days as a solo traveller. It's just me now.

I'm glad I left Kolkata to the end. The former great capital of the old East India Company has all the madness of a major Indian capital, all its buzz, yet at the same time all its poverty, it's depravation and it's despair.

I have tried to avoid being a poverty voyeur, but what is there is there, and poverty is there. In Galica we say 'Un home e un home e un gato en un gato' which means 'a man is a man and a cat is cat...or just 'dont sugarcoat'!

As a non tourist hub, such as Delhi or Mumbai, there is a different feeling to it. Nevertheless, and for the first time, I went looking for the backpackers, unsure of how long I could enjoy my own company. And they are easy to find, around Sudder Street, the plentiful cheap guest houses attracting them.

I spent my last day walking. I just walked and walked, and then i walked further.

I walked past the Justice Courts, and saw the escribes that type for those who can neither read nor write...

I walked past the Victoria Monumnent. A stunning reminder of a time long gone. Beautiful, grand...

Kolkata is the last town in India that still has man-pulled carts. I felt they were better placed in the days of the Opium Wars than the days of Tata...

And to end my time in India I met a group of Spanish girls, barking mad. Raquel was worried that her name meant prostitute in Hindi. I also had dinner with a Hungarian photographer that had all the time in the world to explain to me how to take pics but with none of the arrogance of an 'artiste'...

Now it's off to Bangkok, but just before I go, one last example of the love this country has for TAT.

That's tat with a capital T. A capital A. And then a capital T.

View across the main bridge...

Kolkata's tram...

Actually that was just for the government pics...this is the real Kolkata tram...

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Mother of All Train Journeys

The odyssey has ended.

My 44 hour train journey across India has come to an end.

I have travelled, in two days, all the way from Mysore, South India, to Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, in the North East.

It has been an interesting journey to say the least. I haven't seen any Westerners, neither on the train nor in the stations. People have been looking at me with a constant bemusement all over their faces, wondering why I am travelling with them. Westerners and all rich Indians will fly, especially as flights are so cheap for residents, though this is no longer the case for non-residents.

So walking down the very long platforms most people stared at me. Only once this morning did someone steal my limelight. When coming back from getting my chai I noticed everyone, for once, staring in a completely different direction.

Coming towards was a transexual. Or a transvestite. Not sure.

I have seen them on most trains here, some of them pretty aggressive. However, this 'lady' was a lot older than the average and seemed content waltzing around shaking her bells like a cat to let you know that she was coming.

Two days on a train gives you an idea of the enormity of this country, of its diversity, from the paddy fields to dry river beds desperately waiting for a monsoon that isn't due for another three or four months.

Water reservoir 3 months before Monsoon...

My main worry before the journey started, and while on the train, was the possibility that my stomach might start playing up. People had described the nightmares of travelling on a train while suffering from Delhi Belly. However, the bottom has not fallen out of the market and trade has been firm and steady. As they say.

Two days without a shower have almost immunized me against the smells I have experienced. There is nothing worse than a train station on a hot day. In the station you buy food, and after eating, people just throw the leftovers through the window. Top it up with the fact that toilets open directly into the railways and you can imagine the stench on a hot humid day.

As always though there is a lady that takes you under her wing, that looks after you, tells you what to buy, eat, how much to pay...

She was also very tidy and kept our compartment that way, but only, as they always do here, by throwing everything out the window. My utter horror when I saw her picking up my dirty cups, bags..and out through the window it went...

However, I did manage to find my next meal on an environmentaly friendly container...some leaves...

I really do wonder how come the bottom hasn't fallen out of my market...

Today's papers are all full of articles, opinion pieces, letters, etc...about SlumDog.

I still haven't had the chance to see it. Actually I dont think I have even seen it advertised in any cinema here. It is not your typical Bollywood movie, doesn't have their usual stars, and it is in English. However, one thing that has infuriated me is the reaction from certain parts of the Indian press.

Their view is that the movie portrays the wrong image of India, pauper India. They believe the movie taints the image of India abroad, doesn't portray the India that they are proud of. Critics also claim the movie is a voyeuristic take on extreme poverty. Well, in my humble opinion, the country may have changed beyond recognition since the early 90's but there are still 350 million people living below the poverty line here. These people have to worry everyday where their next meal is coming from. And they're not just in the big cities, they are all over the country, in the small towns and villages too...

They live in extreme poverty, on less than $2 a day. The billions of Rupees that have been spent in subsidies and state support have been, in its majority, lost in the transmission, swallowed by middle men and apathetic governments.

I've got one more day now in Kolkata before flying off to Bangkok.

And then I will make my way up to Laos.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Trekking Under The Sun

I am absolutely wrecked.

As planned we went up the hills for a long trek, 15km in this sun.

A very early start, 7 am, was made much better by the guide who took us into someone's house and gave us some slightly alcoholic drink. I know it was only 9am but I didnt feel too bad about it as we were just tasting the local culture, and we even got to see the plant they use to make the drink...and one weird looking tree this is...


It is good to know where your drink comes from...

The area is a mixture of decacious forest, coffee, tea and spice plantations and open hills, with great views over the valleys, a perfect place really for trekking. Some of the trees we came across were just awesome...

Our guide found a snake skin, proving the fact that I can't get away from them, frakking reptiles they are everywhere!!!!

To me it looked like a very long thin condom, but it is a snake skin...

Sometimes when you plan a holiday you are so focused on getting to see all the famous places that you miss some of the lesser known spots that are well worth seeing. Also, due to the lack of mass tourism Madikeri and its surrondings were fairly clean.

Heading back to Mysore for one last day before making my way to Kolkata...

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Coffee Plantations

After leaving Kerala we made our way, on a very slow train, to Madikeri which is up in the hills between Mysore and the sea.

It would be what the Brits, in the days of the Empire, would have called a Hill Station. At 1300 metres altitute it was the perfect place to escape the scorching heat of the summer, but also the ideal place to grow coffee, tea, and spices.

As the morning turns to afternoon the paddy fields become drier, vegetation turns to dust, green to dry orange. Sadly, the monsoon is not due for another three months....

Eventually we changed over to a bus. I love our bus journeys. I understand why Indians don't need amusement parks, they dont need the thrill, they just get on a bus. For a start, our bus driver didn't drive on the left, nor on the right, but somewhere in the middle.

On top of that, you always get some in-house entertainment. In this case it was a huge argument between a family of 20 and the conductor. The family didn't want to pay for the extra luggage they'd brought. And as they were all from different parts of India they started arguing in English. I had to thank them for the show...

However, they never reached an agreement...

So, a bit later on, when I was happily listening to Petula Clark, two policemen boarded the bus. I thought it was a bit excessive of the conductor. Until the policemen came and stood by my side...what had I done???

Well it seems that the local police transfers criminals on local buses so a chappy called Manol and someone else, who was too embarrased to give me his name, were actually travelling with me towards court....

Anyway, there was no more drama and we eventually got to our destination...

The view over the plantations is amazing. Once again, another hidden gem of India.

Tomorrow Charles and I will be trekking across a coffee plantation.

The longer I spend in India, the more I love this country...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Real Drink With The Locals

This dodgy old place was so me...

I have always had some special ability to the find the gutter, to find the worse places to be in, what some people might call the lowest of the low. So to be truthful, it wasn't that surprising when yesterday I found myself in a dingy dirty old drinking den.

Drinking alcohol is frowned upon in Kerala, although tourists are allowed to drink. Shops selling alcohol are few and far between, and bars even less common. It's not like Goa at all.

Walking from the gym though I passed a sign on the road indicating towards some dodgy hotel and its bar. A continuous stream of men, mostly on their own, were walking, like possessed souls, in it's direction. So i joined them.

The bar is located in some old hotel that's really seen better days, and its clientele are mostly the same that you'll find in any dark bar anywhere in the world. Lonely people burning their candle at both sides. So in I went, sitting at the back, at the last table, drinking away the afternoon.

From time to time I got up and refilled my rum with soda, until the soda run out. I sat there listening to some old sad jazz, which somehow seemed very appropiate, though my ipod looked a bit out of place. The green plastic corregated skylight gave the place an even more depressing atmosphere, the cheap fans simply moving the stale air around and around, like some scene from a B movie...

Eventually when the soda did run out and I couldn't drink the bootleg rum neat, I left.

Outside I found a rum casualty...

Maybe it would be better if i didn't put myself in these situations...

A Missing Piece of Paradise

It's so difficult to keep your clothes on here.

For the last two days I have been pushed, battered, thrown around...though it was a lot of fun.

The sea is strong and there is a constant stream of entertainingly high waves. The only problem is that I've lost my necklace, ripped off by the sea. As you stand with the water around your knees you suddenly swing around to find yourself towered over by yet another big wave that just picks you up and turns you upside down and back again, scratching your nose against the seabed and leaving you with your swiming trucks just a tiny bit too low to comply with the modesty rules of this country.

Or any country to be honest.

Now that I've lost my necklace I've a silly white line running round my neck. Like some strange pearl necklace.

Varkala is fun, not what I was expecting at all. Kerala is meant to be less touristy and less developed than Goa, but my own experience of Goa, in Arambol, was of a very laid back environment with a few beach huts.

Here, on the other hand it's proper brick buildings, big umbrellas and sun loungers. But, still, the whole place is fairly relaxing, and the views are stunning, with the Arabian Sea opening out in front of you from the sheer red cliffs. And everywhere you look palm trees give you the idea you're in paradise.

Although this is the Raja's summer retreat, we are only staying in the staff annex!!!

We are staying in the last Raja's summer retreat, a really nice place that is costing GBP 3 for the two of us. We were a bit worried when we booked, it belonged to the State Government and at that price we couldn't help but wonder what was wrong with it. But there's nothing wrong to be honest. Well it's 1 km away from the restaurants, but the place itself is really nice.

I have joined the local gym, partly to keep myself busy but also to keep away from the sun. You can just picture it, guys with bouffants, little moustaches, tight jeans with flares... it 's all a bit YMCA!!!

I have been reading Twilight. I'm not impressed, but it has made me realize what is missing in my little piece of paradise...and Darren just confirmed what it was....somethings never change.


Monday, 16 February 2009

God's Own Country

We are just back from our overnight stay in Kerala's backwaters. An area of endless canals, rivers, waterways and lush vegetation, it's at the same time densely populated, and heavily polluted.

We had decided to do an overnight boat, but had chosen one that instead of having a kerosene engine was punted around. It also had solar panels for electricity and some special toilet with a compost bin.

Anyway, I was feeling very self-righteous with our choice.

I did feel a bit uncomfortable at the beginning as we were the only two on the boat, and there were three staff. I don't like to be served on, it's just not me. But I got used to it pretty quickly, with the help of a Kingfisher.

At a very slow pace we made our way through canals of varying sizes, enjoying the tranquility granted by the lack of an engine, giving us the chance to view at much closer range kingfishers, kites, cormorans and egrets.

Chinese fishing nests are used across all the backwaters
After a delicious lunch we moored on a lake and everyone driffed off into a siesta except me, as I was busy reading, learning how to use my camera...and having another beer.

In the afternoon we went on a smaller boat so we could travel up into the narrower canals. I really wanted to absorb the pace of life here, and see everything up really close.

Pivi, our cook, waiter and guide, seemed to know a lot about wildlife and local isssues. I discovered that in the last 8 years prawn farming had overtaken fishing, but thankfully, and not like in other parts, the locals were profiting from it.

At this time of the year the backwaters are salty and they farm prawns. When the monsoon comes, the water will be fresh and the backwaters will become rice paddies. My issue with prawn farming is the extensive use of antibiotics and the risk of putting all your eggs on one basket..a collapse on the price of prawns will ruin these people...and everyone has jumped on the prawn farming wagon.

After another delicious dinner I sat on the bow and watched the sea eagles on their evening hunt, sky diving in front of us and picking fish out of the water with their claws. An amazing spectacle.

I just wish birds were a bit more considerate and stopped from time to time so I could take a better pic.
Bright and early, palm trees in impossible angles

This has been one of the most memorable days of our time in India. The beauty of the place, the warmth of its people, tainted by the ecological damage we are causing, though that has been ubiquitous across the whole country.

Next stop will be Varkala and the beach...

Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Jews of Kochin

Entrance to the Synagogue in Kochin...

I had a great day today. I'm in a stupidly good mood....

Charles got up really early to go and get a massage. I hate massages at the best of times, and getting up at 7 to have one just goes beyond me, but then who am I to decide what is odd or not.

As we wanted to see several sites around Kochin we decided to rent two push bikes. I've been getting more concerned about the levels of pollution, and tuk tuks are particularly bad for it as a lot of them burn kerosene. It was a great idea to hire the bikes. Kochin is flat and easy to navigate. I'm not so sure about the little camp basket I said yesterday, all very Sound of Music ( Sonrisas y lagrimas )...

The first place I wanted to visit was the synagogue, although I knew that today it would be closed to tourists.

The first Jews settled in India either in the 6th Century BC, or even before, in the days of King Solomon, 12th Century BC. Things went well and a community developed until sometime in the 16th century when the Portuguese Inquisition arrived in Goa. Jews were then being burnt at the stake.

Thankfully a local Raja gave them sanctuary and a community settled here in Kochin. Sadly these days there are very few families left as most have emigrated to Israel. The old Jewish Quarter has a very Central European feeling to it, and now it's just full of small stores selling handcrafts and the usual tourist tat. After that we cycled around for a few hours, going for a while near the Backwaters that make Kerala famous...
Tomorrow we are going on a boat for 24 hours to see if their fame is deserved, but I get the feeling I'm not going to be disappointed as they look teeming with life. I have brought with me enough DEET to kills all the mosquitoes in South East Asia.

Though I am slightly concerned about, well, what else...snakes.

I finished my day in a lovely coffee shop called 'The Tea Pot' drinking 'White Silver Tips', some special type of tea, all very civilized, and finishing the book I have been reading, 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini. Not an upbeat book, but, in my opinion, a great story of courage and dignity, full of very sad moments, but also a few heart warming moments that give you hope.

Still haven't received any Valentines cards.

The who on earth would send me a card....I am a sweaty pig....