Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Varanasi -> Calcutta Train

My train was 3 hours late departing. A poor american girl had been waiting for the 4pm train, which was now delayed until 3:30AM. I took her under my wings, spoke to the station-master on her behalf, and had her transferred to my train, which left at midnight.

It turned out she was amazingly interesting - lived in Sonoma, north of San Francisco, and grew marijuana (state sanctioned, for medical clinics) for a living. We had a great conversation about money laundering, taxes, and how to effectively hide your accounting books.

It's strange.. but all the criminals/law breakers I meet - most don't care at all about security. She uses a prepaid telephone, but doesn't seem to care enough to get a new phone every month or two - even though it'd be very very easy.

I gave her my card, and told her to drop me a line if she ever had any questions on improving her personal security (encrypted accounting databases, etc)...

Anyhow. My train arrived very very late to Calcutta. It's 6PM now, I have a 9PM flight, so I have just enough time to send a couple emails, grab a bit of plain rice (damn stomach), and then head to the airport. I sleep in Chennai airport tonight, which should be lovely.

It also looks like Air deccan, my carrier of choice, will be flying direct to the Andamans from Calcutta in 15 days, thus, if I had more time in my trip, i could have avoided the whole trip to Chennai.

Oh well.

Last of Varanassi/ Food Poisoning / Major backsheesh

Took care of the last of my errands in Varanasi - which included going to the hospital to have a proper test taken - on and off again food poisoning was making me suspect something nasty.

The doc straight away said "You most certainly have either giuardia or amoebic dissentry. Luckily, the medicine is the same for both."

Translation: I'm not sure which one you have, so I'll give you meds for both, and we'll hope it kills whatever you have off.

The test they gave me proved to be inconclusive, so i'll take the meds, wait, and see.

Something interesting happened later though.

The pharmacy that filled my RX gave me the wrong drugs. One of the 4 sets of pills they gave me was completely wrong, for eplieptic seizures - and since Indian drugs don't come with any descritpions/warnings, I didn't figure it out until after I went back to see the doc that evening.

He looked at the pills, assured me that i would be fine (after just taking one of the wrong pills), and told me to go and shout at the pharmacists..which I did.

I started by asking for them to write their names, their phone #'s, and that of their boss... they refused. I asked for their bosses name/number, which they did, and then promptly took back once I called their bluff and started to dial it on my non-functioning cellphone.

Time was short, as my train to Calcutta was leaving soon - so i didn't have the time to wait for any police involvement. So, when they offered me 500 rupees to let the matter go (12 dollars, or about 1 week's salary for hard labor), I took it.

And that, is the first time i've ever accepted backsheesh in my life.. I think.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Shiva Rati/ Bhang / Bambolee

Wow. What a public holiday.

Imagine this:

A religious holiday, that involves loud music, a parade, and lots and lots of free drugs.

It seemed like yesterday, everyone in Varanasi was high. Consumption of bhang (marijuana leaves), mostly in lassi (milkshake) form was everywhere. They were being given out on the streets, outside many temples - all for free, of course. I really can't do it justice to describe just how many people were in the streets, sipping a green/white liquid out of clay cups. The elderly, young kids, even babies (usually being helped out by their parents) were consuming the stuff.

I've been to Amsterdam before, a city where all the tourists seem to be high. But this was a city where most of the working people were doing it too - all in the name of Lord Shiva.

Funnily enough, I was expecting a semi-quiet day.. thinking that everyone would be taking the day off to spend at home or in the temple... but no.

Many people still went to work - they just went to work high. My cycle-rickshaw driver was zig-zagging pretty wildly in the morning - which made the usually dangerous ride even more scary.

In the evening, I escaped the intense dancing crowds and took a night-time boat trip down the Ganges. It was very nice, gave me a chance to see the bathing crowds from a far away enough distance that it wasn't claustrophic.... And of course, it seemed as if half of the people sitting on the ghats were smoking ganja out of chillums...

Saw a floating bloated body in the river too. Mmm.

I still can't quite get my head around the drug laws in India. Foreigners are regularly thrown into jail (or pay huge bribes to avoid being sent there), seedy looking gentlemen (and some children) offer to sell you drugs in most cities when you arrive, yet its perfectly allowed (and even encouraged) on this holy of holidays.

Go figure.

I'm taking care of my final errands now (I leave Varanasi this evening on the night train). Mega food poisoning has hit, which is making me very very thankful that i'm travelling to Calcutta by train (with a toilet, phew) and not bus.

I -may- have internet when I arrive in Port Blair (the capital of the andamans), however, I expect to leave there as soon as humanly possible for Havelock Island, where I expect to have no contact with the outside world.

Off I go.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Too much to do

So many things to do, so little time.

Met up with two Austrian girls who I knew from my time at Paradise Beach (xmas). They both went to the Andaman islands at the beginning of their trip, loved it, and are going back in a week. Thus, I'll know someone there. yippee.

They advised me on a few things to bring - so I went shopping yesterday. Calemine lotion, anti-bug spray, etc. Aparantly, the islands have quite a few sandflies... People scratch their bites, which then get infected...etc.

Shiva-Rati is coming up in two days. It's going to be very very big - and i'm planning on getting up at sunset to see people bathing in the ganges. I'm very excited.

My israeli friends chose a hotel right near the funeral ghat... I literally have to walk past burning bodies to get to their hotel. Not cool. I went last night, and their hotel was absolutely filled to the brim with mosquitoes. We'll have to find an alternative arrangement - dead bodies and mosquitoes are too much for me...


Bought a ticket online from Air Asia to go to Chiang Mai in Thailand.

So right now, my current itiniary looks something like this:

Feb 27: Night Train from Varanasi to Calcutta.
Feb 28th: Late evening flight - arrive 11:30PM (Air Deccan) to Chennai. Sleep in Chennai Airport.
March 1: 5AM flight from Chennai -> Port Blair, Andamans.
March 30th: 7AM flight from Port Blair -> Chennai.
March 30th: 5PM flight from Chennai -> Bombay
March 31st: 01:30AM flight from Bombay->Bangkok
March 31st: 10AM flight from Bangkok->Chiang Mai

Wow. Lots of flying.

I'm planning on hanging out in Pai, which is 4 hours north of Chiang Mai, for about a week or so. It's a very nice town, very chilled out (hot springs, waterfalls, tasty vegetarian thai food, and amazing live blues) - and I can get my visa for Laos sorted out there.

Afterwards, I'll take an all day bus trip from Pai-> Chiang Kong, the northern border to Laos, and then head as fast as possible to the tribal village areas in the golden triangle (Myanmar/Burma, China, Laos borders). I'm not quite sure how i'll get back. I may take a bus down to Viantenne, and fly to Bangkok from there. Not sure.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Death and problems

Woke up at 5AM. Two thoughts went through my head:

1. It's way too early to be up.
2. I'm going to see my first ever dead body in the next two hours.

The sunrise boat-trip of the ganges was very nice - people praying, bathing, and lots and lots of tourists taking indian-rowed boats up and down the river. At times, it seemed like the tourists were taking more photos of each other than of the proper Varanasi sites.

While I didn't see any floating limbs, I did see:

1. A funeral pyre, with a burning body in it. Not too much of the body was exposed, except for two feet sticking out of the side of the fire.
2. A dead goat (with a orange scarf wrapped around its throat) floating/bleeding into the river.
3. A dead cow, against the side of the road.

Later on in the afternoon, I saw 4 people carrying a dead body (wrapped in fabric) above their heads on a makeshift stretcher, as they walked to the ghats to burn it.

Not having too much to do, today was a day for errands.

I caught a cycle-rickshaw the 10km to the fancy part of town, and confirmed my ticket to Thailand. It took a good half hour for the poor man to peddle all the way there. I felt pretty bad for him, but, well, I did give him a 10 rupee tip.

On the way back, I didn't want to sit in the heat for another 30 mins, so I opted for an auto-rickshaw. In the process of haggling, one rickshaw driver suddenly went from 40 rupees to free.

Now. The thing is, I know there is no such thing as a free lunch. I really do know this.

However, I was bored, and I wanted to see what would happen. So I agreed.

Big mistake.

I confirm, multiple times, that I will not have to pay a thing. I'm expecting some kind of shop scam - where he takes you to his friend's silk shop, you're forced to look at clothes for a while, and then you get on your way.

But no. It's a direct (or as direct as Indian traffic will allow) journey to the assi ghat area where I'm hanging out.

Once we arrive, I thank him, step off the rickshaw, and start walking.... 10 seconds later, he drives by, and casually asks, "No money?"...

And this, is the beginning of the balegan (big mess).

For me, this is a moral issue now. He said over and over it was a free trip, and now he was asking for money. In terms of sophisticated scams, this one is not likely to win him a Nobel prize.

For some reason, I really really want to stick my ground.

A crowd gathers, of mostly other rickshaw drivers. They all plead his case, citing communication problems, ignorance and poverty on his part, and least of all, the high price of petrol... At some point, a latino foreigner wanders over, listens for a bit, and proceeds to attempt to give me a right old bollocking - saying that I should know better, and that the money for the fare is nothing in dollars (true)...

The rickshaw driver threatens to call the police, which I happily welcome.. but after calling his bluff, he relents, releasing that they will not take kindly... then one of his friends tells me to continue the discussion in a side alley - where we can fight in peace.

The crowd continues to grow, with maybe 15-20 Indian onlookers.. all nodding and smiling when I attempt to lay out my case... I even figure out the indian word for liar, which gets a big smile....

At this moment, I realize that I'm never going to prove my point, I won't get my free trip without running away from a crazy mob... and so, I accept the rickshaw man's apologly, and his half-assed promise never to lie to a tourist again.. and give him the 40 rupees. End of conflict.

I knew getting into his rickshaw that it'd end in some form of stress... Who knows why I actually followed through.

I suppose I learned my lesson....

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Transport Woes

The train from Delhi to Varanasi was just fine. An A/C carriage, with rich indians next to me...

However, halfway through the journey, I woke up to the feeling of something moving over my head. Something heavy.

I jumped up, and had enough time to see a mouse/rat running away from my bed.

Gross. Ick. Ick.

Today in Varanasi, I was walking to a temple with a few friends, patiently telling each bicycle-rickshaw walla (man) that I didn't want his services...

Suddenly, I feel myself moving back - fast...

Somehow, a passing rickshaw managed to hook itself into the loop on my backpack, pulling me backwards. Luckily, it was a bicycle rickshaw, and not a auto-rickshaw. Phew.

I grabbed the nearest person to me, held on, and shouted "stop" as loudly as I could...

Ah. India.

Bumped into 2 of my favourite israelis in the world on the street earlier. Off to find them now.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I'm here.

It's just sorta hit me, that I effectively have one week left on mainland India. Thats it. And then i'm done. Well, I have a month in a tropical paradise, and then a month in Laos - but i'm done with India. And thats just something I can't quite get my head around.

Ok, fair enough, i'm a bit more street-smart now, I speak a few words of Hindi, can nod my head like an Indian, and probably have a few wrinkles from smiling so much - but it still feels like I just arrived.

So many places I haven't seen here yet.

I budgeted 9 months of world travel between grad school programs - thinking that it would be enough to see many many south east asian countries. In the end, I have barely touched the surface of India - and all it has done is left me wanting more - and knowing that I have to get back to the real world soon.

I don't know when I'll be able to take this much time off again. The friends I've met here seem to keep doing it, year after year, and this makes me very very jealous.

Is the path i've chosen (grad school, a career, etc) worth it?

Enough rambling......

In the space of 3 hours, I bumped into 5 people here that I haven't seen in months.

It seems that a lot of the people from Paradise Beach in Gokarna are here - people I spent nearly a month with. I got to catch up on gossip.

I bumped into one Israeli girl and now she's talking/thinking about coming to the Andamans with me. Who knows if it'll happen - but if I can talk a few of my friends into coming with me. even better.

3 very good friends arrive tomorrow, which should be great...

I was thinking of going to Bodagaya for a day or two - the place where the Buddha found enlightenment. But - I think it's just too much. Too much travelling. Varanasi seems nice, and there is a huge festival of Lord Shiva coming up. It'd be a shame to leave such a holy hindu place right during such a major festival.

Plus. I like Lord Shiva. He's a cool god, one I can deal with, and so it'll be nice to take part in the celebrations.

Slave Labor

In a land where no matter how crappy the job, no matter how low the pay, some Indian man is working it - I've found slave labor.

In the Kullu/Parvati valley areas, it seemed that Nepalis are the labor source of choice for enterprising Indians. Whether it is building houses, hauling my bag up a hill, serving the foreigners their food, or cultivating drugs during the season, it seems that Nepali labor is heavily tapped.

The guesthouse I stayed at had one nepali boy, about 16 years old, doing -everything-. Milking the cows, cutting wood, doing laundry, serving drinks to the guests. The kid literally worked all day and night, always with a smile... and the sad fact was, even though I doubt he was getting more than 700 rupees (20 USD) per month, I think he was genuinely glad to have the job. He probably thought he was lucky.

I gave him a 200 rupee tip when the owners weren't looking -as I'm sure other foreigners do, so he's probably not as bad off as the poor bastard who carried my bag up the hill.. but still. It's very surprising to see the Indians using illegal migrant labor.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Dirty Bus to Delhi

I'm in Delhi now. I've got a ticket on the night train to Varnasi later this afternoon, putting me there bright and early tomorrow morning.

Last night's bus trip wasn't particularly remarkable. Although, as I paid extra for a sleeper bus - I did actually sleep most of the journey.

A few things are worth noting...

When I left Diu a few weeks ago, my bus was searched 3 (i think) times en route into mainland Gujurat. The police came on-board, and picked out the usual suspects (all Indians, all who looked like they might be smuggling alcohol into a dry state). I was ignored, because foreigners can buy alcohol everywhere, once they show their tourist visa.

However, the bus from Manali->Delhi is different. I was warned multiple times by people ahead of time that the bus would be stopped, and that only the foreigners would be searched.

I wasn't carrying anything illegal, so I didn't really have anything to worry about. It's still rather unpleasant to be searched though - and it seems that fate shined on our bus, as we were spared the state-border checkpoint. I'd carefully packed my bags at the guest-house earlier that day to make sure that all my dirty underwear and wet towels were right near the opening of the bag... No sense in making their job more pleasant than it has to be ;)

There was an Indian couple (married, I assume) in the upper sleeper bunk across the aisle from me on the bus. While there was a cloth curtain to provide some level of privacy, it was in no way designed to try and conceal the fact that they were actively trying to join the sleeper-bus-equivilant of the Mile High Club.

Some things I just don't understand. A sleeper bus packed with other passengers, no walls, no secrets. Quite shocking really, as I've not even seen Indian married couples kissing in public - let alone doing this kind of thing.

Had they been a foreign couple, I was planning on saying something sarcastic in the morning. But as the curtain was pulled back in the morning, to reveal an Indian couple - I was so shocked that I couldn't think of anything to say.

A spot of domestic violence

Some experiences, you would rather never have experienced.

My final afternoon in Jari. My bags are mostly packed, I'm sitting at a picnic table outside, having a late breakfast and saying my goodbyes (bit by bit) to the mountain view.

And then - Mr Vinod, the guesthouse owner, walks up to me, and asks me to go and talk to one of the other guests.

It's slow season, and so in the last week, the guests have consisted of:

1. me.

2. Fabien, Minar and Mikon a french man, his Japanese girlfriend and her 4 year old son (previous relationship).

3. Sylvia - a french woman, and borderline opium junkie - who left a few days before.

And so, on this sunday afternoon, Vinodh asks me to go and talk to Fabien, the french man.

It seems that Fabien had been arguing with his girlfriend, leading to some kind of physical struggle. It was enough for about 6 village people (who heard the screams) to approach the guest-house with sticks (to protect the woman). They only went away when the guest-house owner said he'd take care of it.

I'm not quite sure where I was when the screaming happened, as I don't really remember hearing it...

In any case. What does one do in this situation? Bthe time I got involved, any and all hitting was over - thankfully.

If it was an Indian man beating his wife, no matter how much I wanted to step in, I wouldn't. It's just a bad idea to mess with another culture.

Interestingly enough, the couple weren't married - but were pretending to so that the Indians wouldn't think they were living in sin. Also, Mr Vinodh later said that were it not for the presence of the 4 year old child, he would have called the cops straight away.

The situation was complicated futher by the fact that the police in this area spend the vast majority of their time trying to catch foreigners with drugs (and are thus chasing the bribes that result). Mr. Vinodh hardly wanted to bring the police to his guest-house, esp. not one where tiny cannabis saplings grew everywhere (outside the toilet, under the breakfast table, etc).

It seems that he poor lady hurt her neck in whatever kind of physical struggle happened. She didn't want to leave her bed due to the pain - but the threat of further problems caused mr Vinodh to urge them to take a taxi to the hospital 2 hours away. I told him to call up the cops and have them meet the couple at the hospital - thus avoiding any nasty situation at the guesthouse.

And so, I did what any reasonable person would do... I avoided the long and bumpy walk (with my huge backpack) down to to the bus-stop, and instead....

I caught a ride in the taxi-cum-ambulance down to Jari proper, where I began my journey back to Delhi. With the lad sitting on my lap in the front seat, and the two foreigners in the back - she reclining and trying not to move, and he trying in any way to make amends... That trip completely and utterly defined the term 'akward silence'.

A few disturbing things worth noting are:

1. I'd spent the last week with these people, noticed nothing strange, and had been happily playing chess against the chap every evening. Suddenly, the man I considered very reasonable was a total wanker (by any legitimate definition of the term). It's not pleasant to realize that you've made a poor character judgement (or, that good people can do bad things).

2. At one point in the afternoon, Mikon, the little 4-year old runs out of the room shouting "My Mummy has died. Fabian has killed my mummy. I stay with you, ok?". Sure enough, the kid was wrong (thank goodness) - but hearing those words, in that voice, is something I would never ever like to hear again.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Jari, Kullu Valley, HP

The journey from Dharamsala to Jari was long.. very long. I left before dawn, and arrived just before sunset, after catching an all day bus (no frills) and a few others of similar quality.

It was worth it though.

The Kullu and Parvati valley areas are amazingly beautiful - mountains everywhere, streams and waterfalls, and people who seem to just be getting along with life. Shawls are big business here - and every other shop in the bigger towns seems to be selling them.

The other big business here, of course, is marijuana cultivation. My guest-house owner was happy enough to explain how they produce it (a process of massaging the plants with one's hands), before offering to sell it to me. However, apart from that one offer, it's been very hassle free - a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to be shoo-ing drug-dealers away as I've had to do in other cities - but here, they seem content to let customers come to them - and so don't bother you if you're not out to buy.

There are plenty of stories of tourists being shook down by local police/etc - after all, the drug business attracts many unsavory types. It's the off season here, and so for the most part, that isn't something I've seen.

I'm staying in a guest-house about 15 mins walk uphill from the village of Jari - really, just a few shops on the main dirt road. I paid a nepali porter to carry my bag up the hill the first day - money amazingly well spent once I realized how unpleasant the walk is. And since then - i've relaxed.

We're in the middle of the parvati valley - a very quiet and beautiful place, with farmhouses here and there, but for the most part, quite rural. Birds seem to hover endlessly overhead - and today at the tops of the mountains surrounding us were cfovered in dense clouds. No Internet, no places selling thai-backpacker pants, no falafel - just an indian family running the place, and a couple other tourists. The father/owner proudly told me that there were no non-hindu's living in this part of the valley - however, the bus I took seemed to be full of tibetian-looking people and monks, so they've gotta be living somewhere nearby.

It's very relaxed, cheap, and were it not for the cold the last day or two - it'd be a great place to explore the outdoors.

Food poisoning hit me again yesterday, and then it rained most of today - so I've pretty much given up on doing too much here. However, for now, i'm content to enjoy the heat of the tandori oven, catch up on my reading, and recover from my various ills.

I'll be here for a few more days, probably leaving on the 18th or 19th. I had to travel an hour and a half by bus to use the internet, so I doubt if i'll do it again before I leave.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Travel Plans

Heres the problem:

To go from Varanasi -> Chennai will take over 36 hours. You leave at 5PM on day one, and arrive in the morning on day three. Worse, there are only two trains a week, and so it's really really not convenient - esp. when i'm running out of time.

The solution: Another airplane ticket.

Thats right. I now have _3_ different journeys booked on Air Deccan.

The current plan is as follows (unless I change my mind / and or oversleep tomorrow):

1. Take a 12 hour day bus to Kullu tomorrow.

2. Spend at least a week in the Parvati valley, and maybe a day or two in Manali.

3. On or around the 18th of Feb (in one week), I travel by bus from Manali to Delhi (probably overnight).

4. I'll spend as little time as humanly possible in Delhi, and jump on the first train/bus to Varanasi. Putting me in Varanasi on the evening of the 19th, or the morning of the 20th.

5. Hang out in Varanasi for a week or so. Either I take a night bus/train on the 27th, or a early morning one on the 28th - but in either case, I arrive in Calcutta on the eastern coast of India in time to take a late evening flight from calcutta to Chennai (arriving at 11:30PM).

6. I'll probably spend the night sleeping in the airport, as there is no sense in getting a room in town for just a few hours. I have a 6AM flight on the 1st of March from Chennai-> Port Blair, Andamans.

7. I hang out in the andamans for a month, fly back to chennai (early morning flight), spend the day in Chennai (shopping?), before I take an evening flight from Chennai-> Bombay, and then 2 hours later, Bombay->Bangkok.

I have to figure out how to get from BKK to Laos.. thats the next task.

The Deccan flights are starting to add up. In particular, the Calcutta->Chennai flight is costing me about 75 bucks, but to avoid 2 night busses, or having to arrive in Chennai 3 days early, this is worth it.

Plus, by flying solely on deccan, I probably have a bit more protection. I.e. If I miss my Andaman flight because of a mishap in Calcutta, they'll probably change my flights for free. At least, I hope it works out that way.

Slight Delay

Woke up feeling even worse than yesterday. And so, decided against the 6:30AM bus...I did wake up in time though, I promise.

I'll need to figure things out today. It's the 10th of Feb, and I wanted to go to Kullu, Varansi each before arriving in Chennai on the 28th.

Chennai is in the bottom right hand corner of the country, and Varanasi is -sorta- on the way, but not really.

I may be over-reaching slightly.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hot Tibetian Love

In India proper, the internet cafes are filled with indian guys, either:

a) Looking at porn


b) Surfing the online chat rooms, looking for women.

In Dharamsala, the internet cafes are filled with tibetian guys, either:

a) Browsing various social-networking sites (to find girls), like myspace, h5 (very very popular here).


b) Talking to girls in internet chatrooms.

This just proves, I suppose, that boys will be boys.. no matter where they're from.
If the cafes here provided any kind of privacy, I'm sure the tibetian lads would be looking at porn too.

The funny thing is, while the indian guys will go to a chatroom dedicated to city they're in (i.e. Chennai dating, Bangalore girls, Bombay hookups, etc), these poor
tibetian lads seem to go to Yahoo Budhism related chatrooms, before one-by-one, contacting every female sounding name in the room and asking her if she wants to chat.

Thus, confused american girls who are trying to talk about discovering thir energy source and turning on their chakras are being pestered by horny tibetian boys who have already discovered their energy source, and are quite eager to put it to use ;)

Onward Ho!

I've tried. I really have, but... Dharamsala just isn't doing it for me. It's a pretty enough town... with beautiful mountain views. But it just isn't touching my heart.

I think it's just that tibetian culture doesn't really do much for me. I feel so much more at home amongst Indians.

Dharmasla is also a very very touristy place. There are posters stuck all over the place advertising reiki/yoga/cooking/massage/medtiation classes. I even saw some alcoholics anonymous posters around town.

There are friendly reminders from the Tibetian Anti-Cruelty Committee telling you that eating meat is wrong, and from another committee telling you to have safe sex. It really does feel like a college campus in a way.

But, for whatever reason, I'm just not digging it here. The Indians who are here are mostly Kashmiri, who i really really hate dealing with. They're like used-car salesmen who've decided to become washington lobbyists - corrupt and willing to sell you their grandmother if it'll make them a buck.

And so. I'm off.

I'll be heading towards the Parvati valley tomorrow, on a 6:30AM bus. I don't really have any choices, it's either this, or a government (no frills) bus at 10PM. And there is just no way I can deal with a government night bus - it'll kill me.

I woke up this morning with an awful cough. I blame the cold mountain air, and the back-to-back 2 bus night trips a few days back. In any case, it's even more reason not to take another night bus... So, i'm back on the antibiotics and the cough medicine.

The area i'm going to is the center of India's marijuana growing industry. As my lonely planet reports, a number of foreigners have gone missing over the past few years when trekking alone in the hills - and so, for sure, I will keep my wits with me.

It's low season now, but in a few months, this part of the country will be flooded with low-budget Israelis smoking themselves into a stupor - so I'm even more excited about explorng it before they arrive. I'm sure I'll have a few words to stay about drug tourism in a week or so.

For anyone who is worried - I'm about 6 hours from Jammu and Kashmir (I think). Even without the anti-danish prostests going on there, I wouldn't be going there... For some reason, I feel the need to spell it out here anyway. I am not going to Kashmir.

Inshalla, I'll wake up for my 6:30AM bus tomorrow, or I'll be spending another night here.

Reverse Gender Sex Tourism

I met a German anthropologist yesterday, we walked to a waterfall outside of town together, and had a really interesting chat. She'd been living here in Dharamsala for the last 4 months, and so I got to pick her brain quite a bit.

Given that she was female, I was quite interested to find out how her experiences in India had been (see previous posts about how iffy things can be for women here). She confirmed this, and related a few first hand crowd-molestaton experiences.

However, things got very interesting once we started talking about Sex Tourism.

Many people are familiar with the sex tourism that goes on in places like Thailand. At this point, it's almost an obscene cliche - a balding fat 50 year old white man goes to Thailand for a couple weeks, rapidly finds himself a "girlfriend", who he is with for the next few weeks, and then goes home. Maybe he gives her some money, maybe not. It's not quite the same thing as prostitution, but he is picking up the tab for everything while he's with her, and at the end of their time together, will wthout a doubt be told a sob story about her sick family needing money for medicine etc....

After someone has been to Thailand, it's a refreshing sight to go somewhere where sex tourism doesn't happen - and so, for the most part, I thought India was that place.

The prostitution industry here, while quite large, seems to be focused solely on the needs of the domestic market (I'm sure there are a few sick bastards coming here to sleep with Indian children, but you don't see western men browsing the red light districts - it's mainly bus/truck/taxi drivers, and the like).

And so - foreign men and local women in India do not mix. India is just too conservative a place. Sure, you can go to bombay go out to a nightclub and find a rich young indian woman who might come home with you, but outside of a few metro centers, this just doesn't happen.

However, things are not the same when you flip the genders...

The first time I saw this was in Varkala, a beach town in Kerala (southern India). At a couple restaurants, you'd find very good looking waiters, who spoke very good english, flirted, joked, had long hair and wore the latest fashions. Sure, like the rest of the Indians working there, they got paid less than 100 rupees a day - but these guys had something different going on.... foreign women.

While food and room were included in their crappy salary packages, these beach-boys would rarely spend the night sleeping on the floor of a restaurant kitchen.... They would attach themselves to one foreign woman after another, bouncing from room to room, enjoying alcoholic drinks (and drugs) that they could never afford on their awful salaries, and racking up notches on their bedposts.

Fast forward a few months to where I am now.

Tibetians in general are much more western-fashion orientated than many indians. But yet again, you see handsome 20-something guys, with long hair, excellent english, and a western woman in arm. Some are 20-something israeli/european ladies, but more than a few are 40-50 year old western women... Think Stella Got her groove back, only with a bit of buddhism.

I spoke to the german anthropologist about this at some length. It seems that a number of her tibetian friends do this. Unemployment is rife here, and while some tibetians seem to be quite rich, many others fit the more typical "refugee" image (straight from the mountains, no money, no experience with western ways), and once they have a bit of english, they rapidly start to acquire western girlfriends. And, as she said, spend most of the season bouncing from one guest-house room to another. As they wave goodbye to one girlfriend at the bus-stand, they meet another on the next arriving bus.

I can't fault these guys. Sex is sex, afterall - something that most people are after. However, I'm having a tough time figuring out how I feel about this.

For sure, the state of affairs in Thailand is god awful. Women sleep with men that they would never ever date under normal circumstances, just to keep themselves fed and perhaps send a bit of money home...

The question is.... is the situation with tibetian beach-boys (or mountain-boys) any different?

Am I just jealous because I can't get more than a giggle and a smile out of the local women, or is there actually something wrong with western women (especially older, rich western women) coming over here for a bit of buddhist-flavored holiday romance. Is this a double standard?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Initial Thoughts

It's rather strange being here.

After all, at one level or another, i'm in a refuguee community. The tibetian people here lack Indian passports, and so must pass border checkpoints with their Indian issued refugee card, and usually a couple hundred rupees in backsheesh for the guy at the border.

Admittedly, my experience with refugees is limited. However, at one point, my mum did rent her house in London out to the refugee council, and so I did get to chat with a couple guys from Iraq and Somalia- who had been tortured and experienced very nasty things.

The experience here is completely different. Tibetians are everywhere, armed with mobile phones, very western clothes, hanging out and chatting in internet cafes (which are everywhere here) and mostly, ignoring me.

This in itself is strange. In India proper, i'm a strange thing, something to be looked at, prodded, touched, and laughed at. I have to work very very hard now to even get a smile, as most people don't even look at me. I sorta miss being the center of attention.

The majority of Indians that i've met in this town are Kashmiri merchants - famous all over India for their business skills... In general, I really really dislike dealing with them, as I find them to be pretty ruthless. I never feel like i'm getting a good deal, and always feel like they'll stab me in the back.

The kashmiri thing complicates the simple act of Hello.

To the Indian Hindus, I say "Ram Ram", to the kashmiris (who are mostly muslim), I say salal alakium, and to the tibetians, I say Namaste (because I don't know how to speak their language yet). It all gets a bit confusing, and every once in a while, I catch myself saying Ram Ram to a tibetian monk - and laughing at it.. After all, i'm praising a hindu god to a buddhist monk ;)

This state seems to produce Apples, as the beer/wine shops stock cider - something iv'e yet to see in India. I had a bottle of unfiltered apple juice earlier, and it was great - just like the cloudy juice you get in England. I'll try a cider later, if my stomach is feeling better.

Food here is so so. Fresh veggie momo (dumplings) are available in the street for about 25 cents, but I find myself really missing the food from the south. I'll be there in 3 weeks, so I suppose I can put up with the food for now.

Am being quite lazy here. I went on a walk this afternoon to a neighboring village in search of a shiva temple. I found one, after a great walk through some nice mountain trails, but found a pretty boring baba (holy man) chatting on a mobile phone and smoking a cigarette. Less than holy.

On the way back, I got lazy, and flagged down a passing Tibetian on a motorbike. He gave me a ride back to the main town, albeit at scarily fast speeds going round the mountain turns. It was quite fun though :)

I think i'll be here till the 10th or so. I need to wait for my airplane ticket to show up from Delhi. After that, i'll head towards the Paravati Valley for some intense relaxation before I head to Varanasi.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Crazy Day

For some reason, leaving pushkar finally kicked my mind into gear.

And thus, everything finally started getting done.

In the space of a few hours in Delhi, yesterday, I took care of an amazing number of things.

Most importantly - while doing research on travel to the Andaman Islands, good luck visited me. Up until now, travel options have been: Extremely expensive flights (with foreigners paying almost double, at around $500 return), or a 3 day no frills boat journey for about $150.

However, starting March 1, Air Deccan, one of India's low cost airlines, will be flying to Port Blair in the Andamans. This happens to be exactly the day I wanted to go - and so I'm booked on their first flight out there, for the dirt cheap price of $120 return. I leave on March 1, and come back March 30th. The only problem, is that the flight leaves from Chennai - which is a long way from where I wanted to be....

Last night, I took the tibetian equivilant of the US chinatown express bus... linking the tibetian community in Delhi to Dharamsala. A 12 hour, no frills, no relaxation, no comfort bus journey.. bags flying everywhere in the middle of the night, bumps that caused you to fly momentarily. I decided this at the last minute, of course, and so I got the last ticket on the bus - right above the rear right wheel.

This morning, I arrived to Dharamsala exhausted - after failing to sleep a wink on the bus, followed the first tout that advertised a decent enough sounding room, and went straight to bed.

Oh, I also managed to pick up a lovely case of Delhi Belly, in the few hours I spent there... lovely.

When i woke up, I realized the room was actually very very nice. A balcony overlooking the mountains, a private very hot shower and western toilet, and a TV - well, they started running a wire to my room at 6AM, until I told them I could wait until the evening for it... all for 150 rupees.

This afternoon, I've done very little. I still feel exhausted from the back to back night bus journeys, but I did find a travel agent here, and booked my Bangkok ticket.

Again, using air deccan, I fly from chennai -> Bombay (25 bucks), and then from Bombay to Bangkok on March 31....

What happens after that, I'll figure out later.

For now, I just need to figure out how i'm going to get to Varanasi in a few weeks, and then later, how i'll get from Varanasi to Chennai (38 hours by train, ick).

Saturday, February 04, 2006


I finally got around to buying all my clothes (a daunting enough task), and finally sending them off.

The plan was to then hightail it to Amritsar, to see the closing of the border with Pakistan.

However - pretty suddenly, my thoughts began to clear, and a flash of insight hit me - I have less than 3 months of travel left.

I was going to need to get serious about my last few destinations - no more casually wandering around, alas.

I spent a couple hours sitting by the ghats in Pushkar, thinking things through... and I've made a few decisions.

I plan to go to the following destinations next:

1. Dharamsala (1 week)
2. Parvati Valley, not so far from Manali (1 week)
3. Varanasi (1 week)
4. Andaman Islands (1 month)
5. Northern Laos (2-3 weeks)

That'll essentially have me in Thailand for the 3rd week of April - give or take a few days here and there, and suddenly, i'm flying back to the US.

This means i'll be skipping a number of places (and countries).

I'm still flip-flopping in my head over a visit to Burma or not. I'll decide that soon-enough (especially as I'll need some form of visa for Burma, I think - which may not be available upon arrival as in laos). However, northern laos/burma are somewhat similar, so we shall see.

Laos was easily one of the best countries I've been to. I went to the very south a year ago, and missed out on what is aparantly a great part of the country (the north).

In any case. I had to change my plans from Amritsar, to Delhi, where I now find myself - after a all night non-sleeper bus journey. Ick.

Here, I need to:

1. Buy warm clothes and shoes for the next 2-3 weeks.
2. Find a place with Skype/voicechat, so I can call united and change my airplane ticket (goodbye Japan stopover).
3. get on a night bus to dharamsala.

I'm hanging out in a tibetian ghetto in delhi for the morning - it just seemed better than descending into the backpacker ghetto/red light district of delhi itself.

If I get all my errands done, I may reward myself with a movie later. Who knows.