Friday, March 31, 2006

Mega Culture Shock

I think it started with the mini-skirts...well, that and the Dairy Queen in Bangkok Airport.

I'm so used to seeing conservatively dressed locals, and insultingly dressed foreigners (yet another reason Indians think that western women are er, willing to sleep with anyone). When I got to Bangkok airport this morning, admittedly in a very tired state - it really hit me that I was in a different country - as the women dressed in tight enough clothing that you could actually see the outline of their body..

The real confusion kicked in once I got to Chiang Mai - and hunger hit... I've spent 6 months in a very vegetarian friendly country - and one where people speak English. Suddenly, all the street-side food-vendors are cooking icky-looking meat, don't speak english - and my stomach is rumbling. I ended up eating mangos and pineapple bits until I remembered the way to the veggie restaurant I went to last year.... In this area, I already really really miss India. Food won't be easy again for a long long time.

I went to the Night Market to get a few things - a new backpack, new sandles, and a pair of trousers (as mine are falling apart). On the way, our rickshaw drove past the semi-red light district - a street with a number of bars, mainly occupied by bored looking Thai women who wave and smile at passing foreigners. In every other bar, you see one or two old fat balding white men with tiny thai girls.... I've been here about 10 hours, and it's already starting to gross me out....

Luckily, from what I remember, the sex trade doesn't really have a presence in Pai - and it's highly illegal in Laos, where i'm going next..

Chiang Mai is packed to the brim with foreigners. They're everywhere.... this too is mildly annoying, as it robs you of the feeling of being somewhat special. Yet another reason to leave soon.

Photos Online

I didn't realize how long it had been since I put my photos.

Over 2 months, I think. The last ones were from Gujurat...So today, I spent 2 hours uploading (with the nice fast thai DSL connection). Photos from Dharmsala, Parvati, Varanasi, and the Andamans....

Highlights include: Me covered in paint after Holi

and my knife on the airplane experience

I made it!

I can't believe it... I actually made it here.

4 flights, 3 of which were on low cost airlines - and all of them were on time!

Everything worked out perfectly. I managed to briefly go into Chennai proper to buy books (dirt cheap university textbooks), lungis and medicines - and got one last thali before I had to say goodbye to Indian food.

In Bombay, I had the opportunity to eat bhelpori one more time(rice crispie salad), which the city is famous for....

I got exit rows on all my flights, slept non stop on the last I actually feel sorta well rested.

I need to figure out what the hell i'm going to do now....

It's friday, and there is no Lao consulate here in Chiang Mai - which means if I want a visa, I'll have to send my passport down to Bangkok (with an agency) where it'll take 3 working days to process. That means I won't get it back (due to the weekend) for about 7 days. I don't really want to be in chiang mai that long....

My priorities are as follows:

Go to a dentist. (I want to be 100% sure that everything is ok before I go back to the US, where things are ultra expensive).

Get a massage or 10.

Eat lots of pineapple and mango (which are both in season now. Woo!).

Upload photos.

Once I know what i'm doing, i'll post more.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Leaving for Thailand

It's just coming up to 8AM. My flight to Chennai leaves in an hour and a half. I've called twice this morning to reconfirm both flights, so it looks like I should be ok.

I'll have about 5-6 hours in Chennai. My plan is to go book shopping - and then to the post office to send a bunch of books back on the cheap. I fly out of Bombay at midnight, and arrive in Bangkok the next morning.

Thus, 24 hours from now, insha'alla, I'll be in Chiang Mai - where I plan to stay for one night, before heading up to Pai... I should have Internet at least for the next week.

Goodbye India.. It's been fun.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Back in Port Blair

I fly out on the 30th. I'm praying my flights don't get cancelled. However, the weather is changing here, and it looks like lots of backpackers are flying out soon - so Deccan should be able to make a profit from our journey.

I've got a million bites on my back - a combination of mozzies and sand flies. So for now, i'm going to head back to my hotel room, enjoy the cable TV (simpsons, friends, etc) and prepare for the 24 hour journey I'll take on the 30th...

Plan B

My potential employers are still dragging their feet. Still no word. 1.5 months to go before I'm supposed to start my job.

A few people have asked, "If the job thing falls through, what will you do?"

The answer is: Travel some more.

I'm not due to start Uni until mid/late August. Life in the US is expensive, and at the bare minimum, I have to pay $300 per month in health insurance... I can live on that alone in the 3rd world.

I'm still coming back to the US at the end of April - I need to find a flat in Indiana, and take care of a few other things... but if I have no work lined up, I'll fly off a week or two later. I hear northern Pakistan is quite nice in the summer.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Uneventful trip

The trip from Diglipur back to Port Blair was rather uneventful - apart from the fact that the Mozzies decided to come out today.

I've been fine for the most part during my time here in the Andamans... on Havelock island one day, I was attacked by about 40 sandflies (or 1 sandfly 40 times), but I learnt my lesson after that - they itch for about 5-6 days after....

However, the mozzies came out in full force yesterday, and totally destroyed me. No amount of anti-itch cream did the trick, and my willpower to not scratch is fading by the minute.

With such a short amount of time here in the Andamans left, I think the best thing is just to go back to Havelock Island, and to beach number 7. The beach is top quality, beautiful, and from what I hear, absolutely empty of tourists.

While it'd be nice to explore somewhere new, for my last week, I want guaranteed quality...

I need to get some cash, do a quick bit of shopping, and then will catch the 1:30PM fast-boat to Havelock.


Recent rumors are starting to worry me. It seems that Air Deccan has a reputation for cancelling flights when they aren't full.... On top of that, if they cancel your flight, as a low cost carrier, they essentually tell you to go to hell.

And so - with my 4 flights on one day (Andaman -> Chennai -> Bombay -> Bangkok -> Chiang Mai), i'm quite vulnerable....

Fingers crossed.

Navy Info

The Navy guy I shared a room with had some interesting info to share.

About 10 miles from Smith Island (where I camped), is East Island - an Indian navy outpost. Most of his colleagues have to spend 2 months on this island as part of a rotational service - 2 men, sitting in a building by themselves on an island, alone with a few DVDs, and a pile of submarine monitoring equipment. 2 months with little contact with the outside world.

And the reason they have to do this?

Because China has a military base 20 miles away. One or two of the northern Coco Islands were given to Burma after India's independence, who later leased the island to China.

Thus, the area that I was illegally camping was a semi militarized zone - and thus it sorta makes sense why India wants to keep such close tabs on the foreigners visiting.

Lesson Learned

There are multiple ways to get what you want. In the process of camping out on Smith Island a few days ago, I learned an important lesson:

Stick to one method.

For example, there were multiple ways to get to Smith Island:

1. (The legit way) Pay 500 rupees per day, take a fisherman and have him bring you back at sunset.

2. (Bending the Rules) Get a student permit, wave it in front of the chief wildlife officer's face, and get him to bend the rules slightly, allowing you to visit every day for free (only paying for the boat)

3. (Breaking the rules) Wake up at 5AM, take a fisherman over to Smith before the wildlife officer shows up to work, camp out for a week, and then pay a fisherman to sneak you back to the mainland.

All of these techniques work...

The key thing, is to know ahead of time which one you're goin to do - and transitioning from one to the other is the mistake to avoid.

Simply put: Bending the rules can be fun, and open many doors for you - however, it also makes you quite visible... if you've just gotten a policeman to waive certain ruels for you, its not wise to later break the rules in a blatent way... The fact is that if you get caught, he'll remember you, and you won't be able to claim ignorance.

In the end, everything worked out fine... My friends got to camp for a week, i got to camp for a night, and we didn't get properly caught.

And Smith was oh so worth it.

It was a cheap lesson to learn....

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Job News (none)

Just for those still wondering:

I still do not know in which country I'll be working this summer.

Both of my two main potential employers are taking more time than expected in preparing solid offers, and so all I can do for now, is wait.

I am hoping to know on or around the first week of April... after all, I should be starting mid-May, and i'll need to figure out a flat and all the rest of that kind of stuff...


The journey just kept getting from bad to worse...

Connor (my irish pal) and I stayed up all night, watching the cable TV in our room and making the most of the A/C.....

A few hours later, shortly before dawn, we hailed a lone rickshaw, took it to the bus-station, and approx. 3:30AM, and waited for the 4:00AM bus..

We were exhausted, having not slept at all the night before - and so when the first VIP bus showed up, we got in.. Sure, we asked the normal 4-5 times if we were on a bus to the right place - and sure enough, the ticket conductor kept nodding.

Fast forward about 12 hours (a rather uneventful trip, no tribespeople seen), and we're dropped off about 3 hours from where we want to be... The previously most vocal ticket-seller is now rather silent, and just smiles guiltily when we ask him how we get to Diglipur.

It was a scam. The usual signs are there: He can't look us in the eye... and so, we have to respond in the only way that works... we lose our cool, and make a scene... We refuse to get off the bus, and repeatedly call him a bad man and a cheat in front of the other customers. In the end, he gives in, and gives us 50 rupees each back (I have a feeling we were overcharged in addition to being sold a ticket to the wrong place).

The next bus to Diglipur isn't for another 4 hours. We're exhausted, pissed off, and we want to arrive at our final destination. What to do?

A rickshaw to the main junction out of town, we sit by the side of the road for a few minutes, and hail the first car going in our direction.. And thus I find myself hitchhiking for the first time in my life.

It didn't take long, and soon enough, we're given a ride in a very nice air conditioned SUV owned by the Save The Children Charity... (thats right, where do you think your money is going? To the kids? Hah!)..

A 1 hour bus trip from Diglipur takes us to Kalipur, where the backpacker-orientated guesthouse (Pristine) awaits us.....


I won't spend too much time on this... but simply put, the Pristine guest house sucked.

The manager was a raging alcholic, a control freak, a retired police officer, and a general bastard. However, he had the only backpacker friendly guesthouse in town.

I cut my foot in port blair the night we left - a very small cut, but after walking around Indian streets all evening (read: human/animal waste) and forgetting to clean the cut - it got infected.... and thus, 3 nights were spent at the Pristine, relaxing in a hammock while I waited for my infection to clear up....

The 3rd morning, I woke up knowing that it was time to go.... it seems like everyone else in the guest-house did too - although scattering their own different ways.

I had intended to go straight to Smith Island once I arrived in Diglipur, but my infection prevented me. Armed with a student-permit from Port Blair (which when waived in front of a non-english reader's eyes, can be very powerful), I paid a fisherman to take me to Smith. I had previously gone to the wildlife warden in town to show him my permit - he surprised my by telling me that the 5 rupee student fee wasn't even worth collecting, and that I could go to Smith as many times as I wanted... (quite nice compared to the normal 500 rupee daily fee).

It really was as beautiful as everyone mentioned.. with a sand-bridge connecting it to nearby Ross Island.

My british friends from Pushkar, along with 3 russians, had been camping there for 3 days, and so I joined them for one night. They cooked amazing food (suplemented by daily fresh food deliveries from some of the people on the island). In the morning, I woke to the sunset, and the sounds of loads of hermit crabs moving around under my feet. In the afternoon, I explored some of the island (while my friends stayed back at the camp, and had an unfortunate run-in with the cops).

I'll tell the story properly tomorrow, but the end result is that we were smuggled out to a far-away beach. In the end, it cost me about $25 USD for the two boat trips, but for a night camping on a tropical island - it was totally worth it.

I'm back in Diglipur now... the guest-houses in town are packed, and I managed to get the last room at the guest-lodge, which I'm sharing with an Indian navy officer (no jokes please, 2 beds). We're both on the 5AM bus back to Port Blair tomorrow, and had it not been for the officer, there was no way I could have conversed enough bengali to get the room. It's the first time i've shared a room with a non-backpacker.. but this guy looks pretty safe.

Looking back, it was totally dodgy going illegally camping on Smith. While day visits are permitted, the illegality of camping over-night greatly increased the complexity and cost of the mission... although, realisticaly, gave it a bit of an edge too.

No more law-breaking for me for a while though. Too stressful.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Missed the Boat


The day was going so perfectly.

Slept the night in Port Blair, picked up my permit in the morning to visit Smith and Ross Islands, had a ticket for the night boat up north to Diglipur.. the only thing left to do now was to get dinner....

A slight confusion over the actual departure time leads to the following gem of Wisdom:

Chris' Rule of Boat Timetables.
In case of confusion over the time of departure for a boat that leaves twice per week, where one person believes that the time on the ticket is the "checkin" time, and you believe that it is the departure time - err on the side of safety, and show up before the time on the ticket.

Looking back, it was a clear act of stupidity...

And so, the one time when it would have been very nice for the Indian bus/train/boat to leave late, it was actually on time...

Thus - my Irish confused travelling friend and I are stuck, for the evening.

We've taken a room together, will spend the night playing cards, enjoying the A/C and in-room TV service, and then will catch the 4AM, 13 hour bus to Diglipur...

It's a wasted 12 hours, and will mean that we'll have to spend the night in Diglipur, instead of directly finding a fishing boat willing to smuggle us onto Smith Island (which I have a permit to visit, but not to camp in).

"A ha", you might ask... " So you're willing to pay a fisherman to smuggle you to
an island, but not a power-hungry, slimy drug dealer? Isn't that a bit inconsistant?"

The answer is, of course - I don't mind risking things.. I just don't particularly like paying money that'll end up in the hands of corrupt officials (unless of course, said official has caught me in the act, in which case.. who do I make the cheque out to?)

There are also day-visitors to Smith Island every day, so if something happens, I can get off - and am not dependant upon the shady chap who brought me there.

Anyway. We head off tomorrow morning. The bus trip involves several short ferry journeys to jump islands, followed by an armed police escort through the tribal areas (as they like to shoot arrows at people sometimes... no camera shots out of the windows).

Off we go.

Wandoor / Holi

Wandor was nice enough, I suppose.

The beach was pretty strange, almost spooky. The Tsunami (and other past events) totally destroyed the beach, and so dead trees litter the beach, with many sticking out of the water. It looked really cool at times, as if the trees were reaching out, for one last grasp of air...a hand or something sticking out of the water.

The problem, is that it's a one-guesthouse town....

And the guest-house, is run by an.. interesting character.

He was either - a world class bullshitter, or....

The son of a high up government official &
A smuggler willing to sneak tourists onto off-limits island &
a drug dealer in a very barren land (with many happy israeli customers),
and an aweful guest-house owner....

I stayed for 2 nights. His was the only guest-house on a beach that'd be full to the brim with Indians on Holi day - and so a great place to see it...

However, it was one of the worst places I've stayed on the trip... fleas has overrun the place, and he was just too lazy to do anything about it.

On top of that one of the main goals of going to Wandoor was to go to nearby islands.....However I feel really really wrong giving money to people thats going
to end up in the pockets of paid-off government officials... Yes, I know it's
done everywhere, and it's not going to change - however, I refuse to participate and support this practice (unless it gets me out of jail, of course)....

And so, even if it means I won't get to see amazing deserted islands, so be it...


In any case. I was there for Holi, and it was worth it. I went out at 9AM in my swimming trunks, walked down the road, and for the next 2-3 hours, essentially spent all of my time throwing/rubbing paint onto people, while trying to close my eyes/mouth in time to avoid the constant onslaught of multi-colored powdered paints.

As one would expect, it's a general excuse for kids to cover themselves and their friends with paint/colored water. However, as an added bonus, it's also an open invitation for everyone to attack the foreigner..... and in the case of western females, many of the Indian lads are happy to massage the paint into your more delicate spots - so beware.

Much fun was had.

2 days later, some dye remains... (photos to come later)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


India is a wonderful country, and as the much repeated hindi phase (sub kuch milega) states: Everything is possible.

A much more accurate statement, would be - everything is possible, provided you don't mind waiting a bit.

India is the land of paperwork, red tape, and so everything takes much more time than it would anywhere else in the world.

If you've got one year to travel around, you don't mind waiting. However, if you absoliutely have to be somewhere in 2 hours, you're going to get highly frustrated.

Today's case in point:

I want to go up to the northern Andaman Islands, to see Ross and Smith, which are reported to be mind blowingly beautiful... there is one beach where you can see both the sun rise, and sunset, from the same point...

However, in spite of the fact that the government here is supposedly encouraging tourism.....

You have to take a 12 hour bus to get up there, followed by a boat for a few hours. You have to pay 500 rupees (12 dollars) for a day pass, you are not allowed to camp, and must be on the boat before sunset.

Thus, it's a lot of work, for perhaps not much reward.

The word on the street however, is that students can get entry for a mere 5 rupees - or, about 12 cents.

I tried to get my pass today.

I had to write a formal letter to some government official. Photocopies of my student ID were included, I had to specify exactly which day I'd be visiting (change of date voids the permit), and it'll take 2 days for the 4 various officers to sign my permit.

And so, to save approx 12 dollars on my permit, I have to spend 2 days in the capital city, waste my precious time, and deal with annoying pencil pushers.

No way.

I had to extend my visitor's permit today also, as they short-changed me at the airport, and gave me a week less than I should have. After about 30 mins of heated exchanges with the immigration boss, I received a hand-written permit extension.

Sweet. I can leave now.

I'll be heading an hour away, towards MG National Park. There are supposed to be some nice islands which I can visit, and hopefully, i'll come back through Port Blair in time to pickup my student permit.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Back to Civilization, briefly

12 days on Havelock Island, Beach #7...

It really is the nicest beach I've ever been to.. simply beautiful.

However, there are a few other islands I can go visit, the Indians messed up my permit for the island (so i need to extend it), I need cash, and I really really wanted to see if I had any news on the job front (via email) - so.. when I woke up this morning with the urge to leave, I went with it.

It's late here, the internet cafe closes in 15 mins, so i'll describe the place later.

For now. Holi is tomorrow - a mega huge holiday in India, that as far as I can figure out, involves people throwing paint and water at me.

The plan right now is very very unsure. I'll wake up, go get my permit extended, and then probably head to the MG National Park for a day or two - and then potentially go camping on Long Island later.

There are supposed to be some breath-takingly amazing beaches up north..we'll see if I go up there, as you're not allowed to stay the night.

Still no job news.. so i'll probably have to wait till I get to thailand to figure out where in the world i'll be living/working this summer.

Off I go.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Chennai/Andaman Ctd

Our flight arrives 2 hours late to Chennai, so it's 1:30AM by the time we arrive, and 2AM before I really figure out what's happening.

It seems that the CEO of Air Deccan wants to ride on the first ever flight to the Andamans, and so the airline has delayed our departure by 2 hours, so he can get a bit of beauty sleep.... Thus, no 4AM checkin anymore - but 6AM.

That gives me 4 hours to kill. The airport is -full- to the brim with israelis all thinking along the same lines as me... they're properly camped out, and have taken all decent soft spots.

However, just as I settle down, at around 2:30, the airport starts to fill with a thick cloud of smoke. It seems that every morning, they fumigate the terminal for mosquitoes. The place was literally full of smoke so thick that you couldn't see a suitcase 4 meters away. I have amazing photos of it, but given that it's poison, I didn't want to sit and sleep there. Many people, surprisngly enough, stuck it out.

So I wandered outside into the intense Chennai humidity. Even at 3AM, it was damn hot. And then it hit me... the one place in India that always has A/C is the little security room that surrounds the ATM machine.

There is a brand new Citibank ATM machine attached to the outside of Chennai Airport. I swiped my ATM card, dragged my bags in, put my sheets down on the floor, tied a rope around the door to prevent any real customers from using the room, and settled down for a nap.

2 hours later, I was woken by some annoying Indian. He knocked on the door, I opened it, and then he asked me for money. Something along the lines of "You're a foreigner, you're rich, give me 2000 rupees". Luckily, my present situation at least gave me a funny response: "Boya, if I had 2000 rupees, do you think I would be sleeping on the floor of an ATM machine room?".... Once I shooed him away, the security guard responsible for the ATM showed up, gun in tote, and so it was decide to pack up, and head back to the airport.

The flight was pretty un-eventful, other than the fact that it was packed to the brim with Israelis... and no CEO (so we were delayed for nothing).

We were met at Port Blair by the local news media, and a welcome team who gave me indian sweets, and put a bit of paint on my forehead... quite nice.

The early afternoon was spent mostly flirting with the 3 israeli girls who attached themselves to me ( I somehow managed to propose to one of them in the rickshaw from the airport, but I'm sure I can write that off to lackof ATM room sleep exhaustion).

I'm staying in Port Blair itself for the night. Too much travelling, and not enough sleep. I need to get cash, and send off this blog entry as it's just too funny a tale to remember for a month. Tomorrow morning, i'm booked on the once a day 6AM boat to Havelock island, where, I hope, there will be no internet, no cellphone service, etc...

My goal then, will be to relax, and avoid the damned sandflies, which I'm already hearing stories about

Oh, and it's damn chilled out here. It's india, for sure, but so much slower - if thats even possible to imagine.

Chennai/Port Blair

All I saw of Calcutta was traffic jams.. non stop traffic jams. I did see a few man-pulled rickshaws, barefoot, dragging a few customers on their rented rickshaw... felt serious pity for them.

Anyhow, we ended up getting to the airport about 10 mins before checkin closed. But, er, luckily, it being a dirt cheap carrier, the flight was late. 2 Hours late.

But wait, it gets much much better.

Welcome to this week's installment of "See Chris try to educate the Indians on how Things Are Done (TM)".

It's been 5 months since I was on a plane. I've totally forgotten the routine, and so I forget to take out my pocket-knife from my backpack when I check-in at the airport. When the security guard took it away, I was somewhat concerned - given that the knife cost more than the dirt cheap flight.

We arranged a deal. He would hold it, until an Air Deccan employee would come down, sign for it, give it to a stewardess, who would then give it to me when we got to Chennai. A great idea.

However, what really happened was - the gate employee signed for the knife, put it in a Air Deccan bag, and as soon as we had turned the corner, gave the bag/knife back to me, and told me it was our little secret.

Thats right. I boarded a domestic Indian flight with a pocketknife (admittedly, not a major weapon) - after having it taken away, and then given back by an employee.

As a security geek, this was just too much for me to take....

I asked for a knife in flight to cut open some guava, and was told plastic knives weer no longer carried due to security reasons.. however, I kept my mouth shut.

Once we landed, and it was perfectly safe, I had the chap next to me discretely take a photo of me sitting in my seat, holding the air deccan seat-cover, and the knife wide open... However, this wasn't enough.

I waited until everyone left the flight, went to the front, and in my best cute little kid impression, asked if I could have my photo taken with the captain. The steward said sure, knocked on the door, and introduced me to the columbian pilot (columbian pilot on an Indian domestic airline? Welcome to the age of Globalization).

I explained exactly what had happened to the pilot, who seemed shocked, and for obvious reasons... rapidly declined to be photgraphed with me and the knife.

When I get back to civilization, I may write to deccan. Who knows. I've reported it, so hopefully the gate employee will get the axe.... My safety is on the line, after-all..