Friday, February 27, 2009

Indian Summer: Curd for the heat

It's only February, but the heat is on here in central India. Before India, I enjoyed an afternoon sojourn in Singapore an acquaintance whom I'd originally encountered in northern Laos. I can also recommend against Indian airlines. They changed my flight time, added an additional stop, were generally running late, and condensation on the windows leaked into the cabin (unsettling). Once in India, my first reaction was to the driving. Vehicles of all sizes co-exist in apparent chaos, each one managing to maximize the limited space on the road. Horns of all timbres and resonances fill the air to signal approach, passing, etc... I felt uneasy at first, but then I realized that the drivers are quite skillful and no vehicle travels much more than 20 mph because with all the auto rickshaws clogging the lanes and disobeying traffic rules (for example, sometimes travelling short distances the wrong way), it is impossible.

I spent most of my first four days and today (nearly a week later) with Sheela, her parents, and relatives (who have been truly wonderful hosts). Several afternoons I played street cricket and lagori (an interesting form of dodge ball) with my host family's youngest son, Ajay. We only broke one car headlight with a tennis ball (oops!!) and had to escape one dog that was walking it's drunk owner. The food has really been the highlight here...from home-made masala dosas to curries, idlys, biryanis, and golab jammon, just to mention a few. I didn't see all that much in Bangalore, but we did a bit of shopping and generally relaxed.

One day, I accompanied one of my father's friends' relatives to Mysore, a town known for its beautiful architecture. I was quite impressed by the Royal Palace (lots of gold, ornate ivory and wood door carvings, etc). While I was there, I also visited a temple on a commanding hill and made friends with some locals before attending a light show involving fountains and set to Indian popular music. The show itself was not really that impressive, but the crowd was into it, so that made it fun.

My streak of connections in India continued in Hyderabad, where Reddy's family (and Vineela's too) planned several wonderful days for me. Hyderabad is known for its Islamic influence; Charminar Palace is emblematic of the Islamic architecture. Once I ascended the structure, I got a taste of the lack of personal space afforded in India. Everybody is standing centimeters from one another. Around the structure, a swarm of rickshaws, people, vendors, beggars, and bicycles extends in all directions. The Salar Jung museum has an amazing collection of Indian and Eastern art, plus a famous Italian statue of a woman veiled in delicate drapery and a wall clock with a blacksmith hammering seconds and a surprise personage appearing at the end of the hour. I had to rush through this exhibit, so I actually returned several days later. The evening's visit to Birla Mandir was delightful. This all-marble temple is my favorite that I've seen so far in India. It's a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle of Hyderabad. In the evening, I had the famous Hyderabadi Biriani at the Paradise Hotel. The spicy mutton just flaked off the bone! My second day, I toured Golkonda Fort which featured accoustic enhancements designed for communication and the first water system (pumped and piped) in Asia. The King's office afforded a magnificent view and underground passageways connected it to very large burial tombs of the kings (several kms distant) and the huge mosque near Charminar Palace. The Queens' chambers were impressive as many queens resided there simultaneously. Reddy and Vineela have told me that they are envious that I'm getting to eat this food, so I'll spare them the description of the Samosa Regalas at Gokul Chaat. Let's just say that samosas have been re-defined for me. They are no longer a bland dish that readies the palette for more innovative cuisine. Later that afternoon, I went to a local arts and crafts village and enjoyed seeing some of the objects made locally. On my final day in Hyderabad, I toured to a temple recommended by Vineela near the Ramoji film city (a Bollywood vestige/tourist site).

The overnight bus to Hampi placed me in a small town, 10 km from the archaeological site at the unfortunate hour of 4:45AM. I was immediately accosted for a ride/tour/boat etc. I told this individual that I just needed some space, which he refused to provide me. Fortunately, I encountered another traveler in the same predicamment and we took a cheap ride to his hotel in Hampi where we crashed for some more hours before exploring the archaeological sites. Hampi is one of the most interesting places I've been because it is very laid back, but the local people are very religious, so it is nearly impossible to get meat or alcohol in any restaurant. People wash, brush teeth, and do laundry at the river side in large numbers, and the town elephant gets a royal bath treatment twice daily. When I witnessed this, the elephant was happily moving it's trunk as it lay on its side. Apparently it sometimes makes a joyful whistling sound as well. Elephants have been given royal treatment around Hampi for ceinturies. The finest architecture that I saw in Hampi was the royal elephant stables (12 very large stone-carved stables adjacent to one another, with amazing Islamic domes on top). The neat thing about the sites around here is that one can just explore. The terrain features boulders everywhere and some of the finest low-land rock climbing in India. One overland adventure put me in a cave formed by these weathered granite boulders. We made it through the cave, but decided that negotiating miles of boulders the size of tanks would waste the entire day.

I came back to Bangaluru to enjoy one more day with Sheela and her niece. The latter amused us with her opinions on such matters as dating white boys, a subject which arose because we weren't sure whether her parents would oppose an eventual "love marriage." The large dowry that the bride pays would really be the issue, she explained. I suggested that if she married a non-Indian, her family wouldn't have to pay a dowry and they might be satisfied. This is when the subject of dating white boys arose. Although she hasn't tried such, she is convinced that all white boys cheat on their girlfriends. Sheela and I tried to paint a more multi-hued picture for her, probably to limited success. Teenagers are difficult in India, as well. The evening featured a family gathering (many relatives) and a presentation of white gold ear-rings in commemoration of Sheela's return after many years without seeing her. Sheela's uncle explained to me that the Hindu religion is rapidly declining among Indian youth in India, but that the culture is still quite strong amongst Indian youth in the U.S. This is quite paradoxical and I'd be interested to know why this is the case. During the potluck, I was beginning to come down with a food poisoning that I must have gotten from some street food earlier that day or in Hampi. This placed me squarely in bed for a good solid 24 hours. Now, I'm back to 99% and ready to move on to Tamil Nadu.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Photos Uploaded--Finally!

Diving: Similian Islands and Koh Bon (from Khao Lak)

I regret to say that my overland adventure is currently taking a brief sebatical. I flew from Siem Reap to Phuket (from which I took a taxi to Khao Lak) and I will be flying (today) to Singapore and tomorrow to India. Then overland adventure for a long, long time (I hope!).

I figured that I had a short time in Southern Thailand due to my added days at various points along my itinerary, so I might as well experience the best diving I can. This lead my to Khao Lak (thanks to Ashley's suggestion), the gateway to the Similian Islands (among others). I met Keith on the plane and he wanted to get is Open Water Diving certification, so the two of us shopped for courses together and ended up with Big Blue Diving, which offered a 3-day course (one day in the classroom and pool and the next two days on a live-aboard boat).

A small head/chest cold was my only concern and it prevented me from descending on my first dive, so I had myself a small snorkeling adventure and scared the ___ out of my instructor, because she couldn't find me as I'd lost track of time. My next dives went smoothly. The fish were terrific (snappers galore, pufferfish, etc., squid (amazing creatures), boxer shrimp, huge sea aenemone and urchins) and the fan-like branch corals on several dives were incredible. The visibility was excellent (often 20-25 meters). The second day on my fourth Open Water dive, we saw a manta ray. Some divers have done thousands of dives and never seen one, but in the Similian Islands these are not uncommon. The creature was incredibly graceful and gave the impression of an alien spacecraft gliding through the deep. I decided to stay one final day and went straight into the advanced course for night diving. This was certainly an unforgettable experience (bioluminescence, solitude, and the threat of hidden corals), but with mask issues, I wasn't entirely happy on this dive. The next day, we were gliding through narrow passages between the classic Similian Island weathered granite boulders and then looking down at the tops of the same boulders with strands of marine plants growing on them...the variety of the dive made Christmas Point my favorite dive. Today, I let my blood decompress (nitrogen levels return to normal) and I walked along the beach before we headed to the market and cooked ourselves a feast with the Thai lady working at the hotel. I didn't think it was possible to spend ~$20 per person on a home-cooked meal in Thailand, but we proved that theory wrong (eating 3 king prawns a person, alongside pork steaks, pasta, and spicy Thai dip). I'm still in a food coma!

Siem Reap and Angkor

It's been a while since I've last posted. I've enjoyed writing the previous posts, but I was anxious to write this one. Here's why--the experience was amazing, but my words will do little to describe my experience here, neither in describing the temples nor my reactions to the tourist-instigated pity-begging which plagues all of Siem Reap, but particularly the entrances to each temple (Wat) site. Parents have trained their cute little children to engage the empathy of rich western travelers and sell trinkets such as wrist bands, etc. Their acts are incredibly convincing and it is nearly impossible to tell which people actually are in real need. The land mine victims playing music on the street were certainly an exception to the previous observations.

My bus travel to Siem Reap took me into a bus station which sold fried spider. A local bought one and entreated me to some of this delicacy. I tasted two of the eight legs. They were charred, but I could still feel a bit of the hair on the legs...the stomach was just too much, considering the fact that I had more hours on the bus.

My first day, I did much of the small curcuit at Angkor, by bike, but only made it to Angkor Wat itself just after dawn on the second day. Desiring more information, I joined a guided group at this point. The guide had unique insights because he'd been a monk for 6 years, enlisted upon the request of his parents (apparently this brings his parents good luck) and told by them that he should move on after 6 years. He is now married with a young child, but plans to go back to life as a monk when he is old again and his wife will become a nun. He enjoyed this peaceful life. Our guide described the Buddist religious stories depicted on the walls of Angkor along with other information. My lack of commitment to a specific guide enabled me to get a guide who was really good. The depictions of daily life around the Wat/Palace at Bayon/Angkor Thom were the most interesting to me. At the end of the day, we caught sunset at Bakkeng (along with hoards of others, but the people added rather than detracted from the scene). My favorite temple was Ta Prom (depicted in Tombraiders) which was not excavated as thoroughly as the others. Many large trees were left in place; their gnarled roots and trunks are inseparable from the stone structures at this point and lichen gives the stone a beautiful green color. I heard more birds calling from within this temple than I did in the jungles of Northern Laos...and for the arborists among you, Angkor is a jewel, with very old (labeled) trees that were protected for centuries because monks (rather than farmers) were residing in the region. Some latin names forthcoming, Jonathan.

The final day, we saw dawn at Angkor and then moved on to Bantea Srei, a smaller temple with some of the finest carvings along with some temples of the outer circuit and the land mine museum (a valuable and sobering stop for me, as I knew little about land mines). The multitude of road-side makers/sellers of palm candies was notable. They heat the sap and churn it before letting it dry in cookie-like circles. They were very tasty.

Back in Siem Reap, noodle bars enable one to avoid some of the Westerner-induced inflation of prices, but it's impossible to avoid all of it. After three days, I was ready to move on.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Central/Southern Laos & NE Cambodia

In Luang Probang, the first stop is the 5,000 kip (50 cent)plate of vegetarian buffet. After oversleeping my alarm, I found myself with an extra day in Luang Probang. I visited the Royal Palace, which offers some decent artwork and a French Colonial fusion with Lao decoration. The most interesting exhibit in the museum was actually the gifts given to the Lao royalty by various countries--opals and boomerangs from Australia, intricate carvings from China, etc...but the US gave a model of Sputnik and Apollo XIII..."yeah, we got to the moon first" it implied.

That evening, I participated in a cooking course in Luang Probang. I ended up making an amazing meal of sticky rice, luang probang chile sauce (mostly sweet, but amazingly good), panaing gai (a curry sort of dish), another type of curry, a vegetable with garlic sauce appetizer, and pork garb (the minced meat dish I described previously). Now that I have the recipes, you will have to experience my newfound exotic cooking skills. The only drawback of the course was that because I was the only student, they had pre-prepared a lot of the ingredients, so I was basically putting stuff in, but at least it was well explained what the ingredients were. I don't think I've ever been as full in my life as after this 5-course meal!

With over 30 monasteries, Luang Probabang seems to be a religious hotspot. There is a tradition in Luang Probang that the monks are fed by villagers as they walk to to the Wats each morning. I managed to get myself up the following morning to watch this and it was an event. The monks come with pots and villagers put rice and other goodies in the pots as they pass. I didn't participate because I hadn't figured out what offerings were appropriate and I didn't want to disrupt things by giving the wrong foods.

The rest of the day involved a long and tortuous bus ride to Veng Vieng, the party capitol of Laos. My plan had been to go tubing (foreigners come from all around the world for this experience...involving tractor tire inner tubes and many bars along the route). I planned to tube down the river without stopping at the bars, but since this is a daytime activity, my 4PM arrival was too late.

The next day, I took a kayak trip involving song-thau transport to Vientiane. The kayaking was outstanding. Limestone boulders lined the river channel and we tackled some seriously powerful class 2/3 whitewater at the lunch spot. Several kayakers were expelled from their ocean kayak vessels. While waiting for lunch, I swam through the rapids several times. After lunch, we cliff jumped at least 12 meters. I had to summon up the courage. I'm pretty sure it was the tallest cliff jump I'd ever done. The song-thau to Vientiane was painful...first the dust and then the smoking of the German travellers who were complaining vociferously about the dust (go figure).

As luck would have it, I arrived in Vientiane in time for the 3rd set of Federer-Nadal, but departed for my own 5-setter bus ride to Paxse. I had imagined that I'd take a sleeper bus (which puts you flat, but in very close proximity to the person next to you), but since I was late and bus was already pulling out as I arrived at the bus station, I just got into the bus. My first reaction was that there was no room on the bus, but I was shown to the back of the bus where 3 monks were seated and cargo was re-arranged to make room for my legs. Another man made room for himself next to me by moving some bags of rice into the isle. Next another person lay down on the rice bags. Finally, the rest of the isle was filled with small plastic chairs in which people sat. I quickly realized that I was stranded with no bathroom and I already had a tremendous need before the bus started going again. When nobody initially understood my problem, I resorted to nearly-lude jestures and the message got across. The bus driver pulled over and most people took advantage of the opportunity. I actually slept moderately well and by morning, the bus was only at U.S. "capacity." Daylight illuminated a starker countryside. Many of the trees had lost their leaves during these dry months and trees were widely spaced.

Apparently the only thing I'd learned from my first motorbike trip was that going with other people was "not a good idea" so this time I set out alone for the Bolaven plateau. I had very little information on the region. My first stop was phenomenal: a 100 meter high waterfall with a pool that enabled one to swim right up to the falling water. This was the first time I'd seen volcanic rock (basalt) in Lao. The remainder of my ride was rushed and the tremendous amount of slash-and-burn made the going tough on my eyes. At one point, I needed a screw driver to fix the basket on my motorbike and I ended up playing soccer with some Lao children before somebody helped me fix the bike.

The next day was on to Si Phan Don, where I was glad to be able to stop for a few days. These islands in the Mekong are paradise for the ultra-laid-back hippie backpackers because time is not really something that is considered, nearly any meal can be made "happy" (i.e. pot infused) for an extra $0.50, and bungaloes are cheap. Although I wasn't thrilled that my first lunch took 1.5 hours to serve and I wasn't into "happy" meals, I was really enjoying the islands. Don Dhet and Don Khon are both accessible by ferry from the mainland. Don Khon has a Niagara-style waterfall on its western periphery. I say "Niagara" because so much water comes through them even during the dry season. Don Khon also has a very nice bay on its southern side. The second day staying on Don Det, I realized that I would need potentially $35 at the border with Cambodia to get across and there are no ATM's on the islands. Thus, I started going bare bones on expenditures and started thinking about sticky rice only for lunch.

As luck would have it, I ended up befriending a local who was here (along with many other electrical engineers) to bring electricity in full force to these islands...a very recent development. I should mention that in spite of the new electricity, much of the islands are pitch black at night. These electricians were eating first sticky rice, veggies, and a spicy chile sauce. The next course that came out was meat and dip. I tasted the meat and it reminded me of lamb. I asked what was and I was in complete dis-belief at the answer..."dog!" After pointing at the house dog (which will remain as such, not food), I finally realized that Cun meant what he said. The sauce was also somehow made out of dog. The dog meat tasted good, so I kept eating, and it was free protein. That night, I went to a "festival" with live music at the nearby Wat (yes, a party at the temple). The dancing style of the people was very laid-back and non-physical, a nice break from dancing scenes in the states.

Thankfully, the horror stories of overland border crossings to Cambodia in which significant bribes are necessary did not come to fruition. The border crossing was less money than anticipated and the unofficial, but required stamps required $1 each and were pocketed by the police officials, I'm pretty sure. After a long day of travel, I arrived in Kratie and made a bee-line for the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) office. They have a number of different projects going on, but I'd heard about a cycle to homestay program that somebody I'd het had done. She had gone all the way from Kratie to the Lao border by bicycle, but recommended that I just do the first leg from Kratie, since I would have to use a rental bike. Although warned that I would probably arrive after dark, the CRDT personel arranged the home-stay and I headed north along the Mekong as the sun drew toward the horizon. After about a third of the way to where I would have to take a boat, it was nearly dark and I reached a point where I had a view of the irrawady river dolphin (a semi-rare species). Here I was warned that I'd be riding a significant way in the dark. I pressed onwards on a bike with a fixed gear, seat adjusted for somebody too small for me, and no helmet. By about 7:30PM I made it to Sambour and met my courier. The homestay office in Samphin fed me dinner and took me to my homestay family. They ushered me into a beautiful little room, where I slept soundly. In the morning, I had a chance to "speak" using my Khmer cheat sheet. The family had 3 children, the daughter speaking he best English. I was the 6th person to do a home-stay with that family. I really liked them and have arranged for a water filter to be installed so that they don't have to use bottled water or boil drinking water. The CRDT office has a setup like this, whereby the pump takes water from the mekong and the filtration system purifies it (cost $15). This is the first time that I have felt like I've contributed a tangible positive to peoples lives and I think that I will save the family significant money and effort. Thus, I look forward to receiving an email with a photo of the family and installed water filter in the near future.

Today, I spent in a village even farther north where several project directors were trying to help the villagers use more agriculture and connect with the middle men and move away from reliance on the over-fished Mekong River (it's hard to catch large fish in this river these days). I sat watching an entire village including some children who were very attentive to the advice and organisational logistics provided by these project directors. Unfortunately, I could only understand the translations. In the afternoon, I journeyed back to Kratie and am here in town, writing this email. I'm heading to Siem Reap, tomorrow. Back to the tourist superhighway...after the peace and relaxation of small villages it might be a culture shock.