Friday, 19 January 2018

#37 The ending

The next week was all a bit of a blur. I met my New Zealand Friend at a hotel in Delhi, had a very short sleep, and next thing we were up early with a very hastily made plan to go to Jaipur.

When we headed downstairs I was surprised to see the circus couple I had met in Vietnam a month or so earlier at the same hostel so we had breakfast together. After a brief catch up about what they had been doing and what we were doing, NZF wanted to get moving, so we were off in an Uber to a bus station to find a bus to take us to Jaipur.

We really had no clue if it was the right station but there were lots of drivers standing around yelling “Jaipur, Jaipur!” so we figured it must be. There were no signs or even a ticket booth. They were all very local - looking buses which would have been fine if I had been by myself but because there were two of us we wanted to take a slightly more comfortable one.

It was at this bus station that we met the friendliest guy. His name was Arun and he was also going to Jaipur. So we stuck by him and he showed us which bus to take when it arrived. We spent the next five hours talking to Arun and asking him all kinds of questions about India. The bus journey passed really quickly and before we knew it, it was getting dark and we were almost in Jaipur.

Arun invited us to his house the next day which we happily accepted and we said our farewells. This was one of the best parts about travelling with a guy I decided. I could finally accept these kind offers of hospitality and not have to worry that it was going to get weird.

We discovered a great travel hack that I wish I learnt about months earlier as it would have saved so much money. We downloaded an app called Ola which allows you to type in your destination and it calculates a fair price for taxis and autos. Even if we chose not to book the ride through the app, it gave us a lot more confidence when negotiating the price with drivers. Brilliant!

That evening the lack of sleep caught up with us. We made it through a very heavy, very typical Rajasthani thali with dal roti and then went for a little wander down the street before collapsing into bed.

The next morning I remembered that you can get a concession ticket for all the sights in Jaipur. So after a big breakfast I suggested we head to the town centre to get one of these tickets. I spent the rest of the day wandering around slightly behind NZF seeing all the sights of Jaipur that I had already seen earlier this year.  It was all a bit of a rush because we were aware lovely Arun was waiting patiently for us.

Eventually we caught an auto to his house (or what we thought was his house) and that’s when the fun began, starting as it always does, with my phone running out of battery. Luckily I had scribbled down his address when I saw my battery was getting low. Our auto driver had apparently dropped us at the wrong apartments and we spent a good few hours wandering around asking what seemed like hundreds of people for directions and getting sent around in circles.

We decided to go into a CafĂ© Coffee Day in the hope they would have free wifi so we could use google maps on NZF’s phone or at least contact Arun but alas they didn’t have wifi. So plan B was ask for a Samsung charger to charge my phone as I was the only one with an Indian SIM. This was more successful and I managed to get hold of Arun and let him know where we were.

A few minutes later he arrived on his motorbike to rescue us. In the meantime NZF had been having a chat with another very friendly Indian man who was setting up his own start up NGO. India is full of these incredibly talented, socially conscious, highly educated people.

So after all that drama we made it to Arun’s lovely home and met his sweet girlfriend who had prepared all kinds of delicious dishes for us. We chatted, ate, shared stories and then went up to the rooftop to fly a kite that I had bought along the way.

I hadn’t realised it was actually kite flying season and all Arun’s neighbours were also out on their rooftops flying kites as well. It was quite a sight! We all had a go at flying it which was much harder than it looked.

Sadly Arun had to go to work that evening and we had already planned to go to a cultural centre (the very same one I had already been to with SCMG). Arun was so sweet. He rode his motorbike right next to our auto for as long as he possibly could until he had to go a different way.

We arrived at the cultural centre and spent the rest of the evening wandering around. I got some terrible henna and NZF got a very ferocious massage. Then it was time to go. I was getting a bit bored since it really hadn’t been that long since I had been there. We argued with the auto driver about how much it should cost us to get home and once we finally agreed on the price a whole lot of auto drivers crowded around and showed us a youtube video about how autos are Indian helicopters.

They were wetting themselves with laughter and NZF and I were laughing at them laughing and the whole situation. Once we finally made it back to the hostel we were exhausted and fell asleep pretty fast.

The next morning we headed to Amber Fort. Again I had already been earlier that year in March so the memories were still pretty fresh. NZF was pretty busy taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere.  I wandered around people watching because this was more interesting. Then we auto'd back to the hostel to grab our bags and make a beeline for the bus station.

When we got there I realised it was again the same one that I’d been to with SCMG. This meant I could confidently ignore all the drivers trying to get us on their buses for higher prices. We found the ticket booth and avoided several small, very bedraggled, beggar children who were tugging on my shirt. I tried to get them to go away without getting grumpy. I had to practise being assertive and saying no in Hindi. This seemed to work. We had a really cheap meal of samosa’s and other Indian snack food along with a cup of chai and before long our bus was leaving. I was reminded why I love India so much. The hustle and the chaos gave me such a high and I felt like NZF was maybe starting to feel the same.

We wedged ourselves and our bags on the bus and under the seats because there are never any proper storage spaces on Indian buses it seems. After a while I opened a sweet that I’d bought at the bus station. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a man watching me so I thought I’d be friendly and offer him some. He took this as an invitation to come and sit next to me. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I realised I’d made a bad call and he started to get very creepy even though NZF was sitting right next to me.

He made a very inappropriate comment and it was then that NZF leaned over and asked him “what did you just say?” 

The man got very embarrassed and went quiet. I felt incredibly uncomfortable so I asked him to please move back to his seat in front and he obliged. It wasn’t long before he decided he would get off at the next stop. A few people were turning around to look at us so I knew they had heard what he said as well.

I hope he felt worse than I did because I felt pretty gross. After a while of sitting there feeling very miserable I turned it around in my mind and started to feel very sorry for him. He was quite deluded and probably deprived of love. That made me feel better and I tried to shake off the awful dirty feeling he had left me with knowing that it would go away with time. 'Annicca!'

After a while we arrived in Pushkar without any more awkward encounters. We discovered the bus dropped us off not too far from the ghats and the lake the town is built around. So we wandered through the narrow streets with our backpacks on looking for the lake so I could get my bearings. I knew as soon as we found the lake I would know where to go.

I wanted to go to U-Turn, the hostel that had the amazing roof top restaurant I went to with the Australian guy and later SCMG. I had that same weird feeling of being in a place that was both familiar and strange at the same time. It made me feel very sad for some inexplicable reason.

The hostel was full so the manager, who was a lovely American guy, took us to another place which was equally nice and promised hot water and wifi for a fraction of the price. We were sold. It later turned out the hot water part wasn’t true but never mind. When in India one has to adapt.

On the way to our hotel I bumped into a friend of a friend from New Zealand. I’d already been in contact with him so it wasn’t a huge surprise to see him. He was with some other friends so we said a quick hello and planned to meet up later. Pushkar is pretty small so it wasn’t going to be difficult.

NZF and I later headed out for dinner. As Pushkar is a holy city alcohol is frowned upon. Yet, because there are so many western tourists and the economy relies on them, alcohol can be found everywhere. It’s just never on the menu. We ordered a beer and it arrived in some mugs. The bottle was quickly taken away as soon as it had been poured.

NZF and I had a nice meal before we decided it was time to head back to the hotel. Before we got back we met the other New Zealander and had a wander around the lake with him. He’d been all over the place in the last year and it was really nice to hear another kiwi accent. The whole situation still felt very strange. I’d been here before and had such a great experience and now here I was again in this somewhat magical place with two people I knew from back home that, when I first met them, never would have imagined we would hang out in India of all places. It really messed with my head.

During the course of the night we learnt that the American guy who helped us find our new accommodation also ran tours to see Aloo Baba - the man who only ate potatoes that I went to see with the Mumbai friends earlier this year. I’d told NZF about this of course and had suggested we go on a scooter ride to visit him so this worked out perfectly.

The next morning we were up, breakfasted and ready to go. We met the American guy and went to go hire our bikes. At the bike hire place we met two Dutch girls and a Spanish guy and invited them to come along with us.

It was at this point that it became apparent NZF had zero experience driving a scooter and was about to dive straight into the deep end in a country notorious for its crazy roads! He didn’t seem too phased. I got talking to one of the girls and missed the hilarious event that happened next but we were all filled in later.

Apparently just as we were about to get going, NZF decided he was too hot with his jacket on, so stopped to remove it. Once he’d done that and was about to drive off he blanked on how to steer the scooter and ended up falling sideways. This would have been fine except that next to him was a sleepy holy cow. Luckily both cow and man were unharmed and it was only the scooter that suffered a small scratch.

Once we did finally get going NZF was fine and we had a smooth ride all the way out to see Aloo Baba. He looked just as I remembered. He sat on a stool and packed his weird little pipe with weed. It turned out he could speak English (last time he just spoke Hindi since I was with the Mumbai friends).

He told us he only ate potatoes because “many choices, many problems.” He explained that if you complicate life things just end up more difficult. That’s why he has no woman, no family and no friends.

He pointed to the sky and said “One love – god, no problems.” You can’t really fault that logic however I don’t think society would function very well if everyone lived that kind of life. And he did seem to have a lot of friends who would sit and smoke with him. It seemed a very chilled lifestyle.

We had a wander around his ashram and I sat in the little meditation cave for a bit. I still felt a bit weird going to all these places that I’d already been to. It was almost as if it were diluting my original memories. But obviously I was supposed to come back with NZF for some reason that will become apparent later on.

That evening NZF and I wandered around the shops and sat listening to some world music down by the lake for a while. I was still feeling pretty weird so I headed back to the hotel on my own to try and meditate my way back to happy. I self-diagnosed the bad mood as premature post-holiday blues. I was worrying about the transition back to real life that I was about to make.

The next morning we arranged to get a bus to Jodhpur. This would be the first new place for me that NZF and I travelled to and I was pretty excited. We took a very local bus again and squished ourselves in next to our bags. This time there were no creepy men. Just a really friendly woman who was a teacher and invited us to her wedding within 15 minutes of meeting us. Unfortunately it was in February and neither of us would still be in the country.

We arrived in Jodhpur in the evening, bargained ourselves an auto and headed to our hostel. It was the cheapest hostel I had ever seen in India on and I was a bit suspicious about what it would be like. But we were in luck! It was adorable. The walls were painted appropriately in blue (Jodhpur in known as the Blue City) and our room looked out onto the street and straight into our neighbour's house.

There was no glass in the window so I stuck my head right out and had a good look around. I feel like the people who lived opposite probably were used to foreigners doing this every other day. The hostel was in the perfect location and we could walk to all the main attractions. We wandered about trying to find an affordable place to have dinner. Eventually we found a cute little restaurant with a roof top and a beautiful view of the giant fort that overlooks Jodhpur.

We ordered some local dishes and a beer. There was only regular Kingfisher on the menu but when we asked if we could have a strong one the waiter was super obliging and said he could get some if we didn’t mind waiting. Obviously someone was sent down to the store to pick some up. It was then chilled and brought to us within about 20 minutes. Seriously, India understands customer service like no other country I’ve ever been to. It’s true what they say. In India, anything is possible.

This was reiterated to the extreme as we sat waiting for our food. There were another foreign couple at the table next to us. I overheard the man asking if the waiter could get him something to smoke because it was his birthday. The waiter’s response was: “Yes it is possible!” In a few minutes the waiter was bringing over the fattest joint I’ve ever seen in my life! 

The following day started with breakfast on the rooftop of the hostel which we discovered had hosted director Wes Anderson when he was filming The Darjeeling Limited. Then we made our way to the fort that loomed over the city in a slightly foreboding manner. On the way we stopped to photograph some goats in coats. I still remain adamant that this was the highlight of my last week in India. I mean, goats in coats, how can you not love that? In fact we were both so in love with them that we made a special trip the next day to see them again. They were bloody adorable.

After the fort we went to another beautiful structure that was built in memory of a Maharaja’s father. Jodhpur was the kind of place that you could easily imagine Maharaja’s and incredibly wealthy Indians riding around on elephants in all their finery. We also visited the King of Jodhpurs’ palace the next day before catching a night train back to Delhi.

I was feeling pretty emotional as we pulled into Delhi. The end of the crazy 10 months was drawing to a close and I didn’t feel ready to go back to reality just yet. But I had to. My money was almost finished.

I really thought I’d seen so much in the last 10 months that nothing would surprise me but Mother India will never cease amaze me. She sure saved the best for last.

As we drew closer to Delhi, the air became thick with smog, and the slums crept closer to the train tracks. People in these houses have no sanitation systems so they had no choice but to take their morning constitutional on the tracks.

It’s an image I will never forget. Men walking in pairs sometimes with a bottle of water each along the tracks and squatting down in full view of everyone. The train tracks were littered with little brown piles. Sometimes we saw two men sitting side by side having a cigarette and a chat whilst they did their business. NZF and I had been joking over the last 10 days that public defecation was the national sport but this really was no joke.

We pulled into our station and it hit me that this was it - my last day in India until who knows when. I had to hold back tears as I said goodbye to NZF and found an auto to take me to the airport. I had the whole day to kill so I found a rather expensive hotel to wait in until my flight at 3am the next morning.

I was pretty miserable. I’m not going to lie. It felt awful to be leaving India and I didn’t know how to process the flurry of emotions I was experiencing. So I did what any 25-year-old woman would do. Had a good cry and called my mother. I knew that the feelings were only temporary though. Annicca – impermanence, impermanence! After a nap, a hot shower (first proper hot shower in forever) and some food I felt a bit stronger and got myself an Uber to the airport.

I slept for most of the flight except for when the food came around. I had a nice chat to the man sitting next to me as we touched down in Beijing. He suggested a few things to see as I had a very long stop over. As I slept so well on the plane I decided to get a temporary visa so I could leave the airport. After waiting in line for what seemed like hours I finally got the stamp in my passport.

Whilst I was waiting I met two extremely lovely Italian girls who had also just come from India. They were also going to explore Beijing and their flight was at 1am whilst mine was at 12.30am so they invited me to come with them. I was very grateful for the company and all the sadness evaporated. Nothing like an adventure with wonderful strangers to cheer a soul up!

So we found ourselves in Beijing without a clue about where to go or the currency conversion rate or even how to say hello in Mandarin. Between the three of us we had done zero research since it was a rather spontaneous decision to leave the airport. It was as if we’d just been dropped onto another planet.

We didn’t even know how to cross the road. It turned out that you were supposed to use the underground crossings. Our taxi driver dropped us near Tiananmen Square and we wandered around trying to figure everything out. A strange little vehicle stopped and offered us a ride. One of the Italian girls asked how much it was and it sounded like the driver said three Yuan. We didn’t want to go far so we all squished in. Then the driver’s friend came along and told two of us to jump in his one so we were more comfortable. They drove us around the corner and down a dark lane near the square. Here we realised we had been well and truly ripped off.

One of the drivers pulled out a card which said, in English of course, that that short little journey would cost us 300 Yuan! We had, by this stage, figured out that 300 Yuan was about $60 NZD!! There was no way we were paying that to drive around the corner so we put up a fight. We ended up giving him 100 Yuan instead. He was not very happy and there was a lot of shouting from both sides but there wasn’t much he could do. He was definitely ripping us off since it only cost 100 Yuan to travel for two hours from the airport to the square.

It was freezing cold and one of my new friends was desperate to use the bathroom. We went from shop to shop asking for a toilet and getting very unhelpful responses. Probably because we were speaking English and trying to mime out ‘toilet’ by crossing our legs and jumping up and down. Now I wished we were back in India where we could have just peed anywhere!

We found the square but we weren’t allowed to go in. There were men in soldier’s uniforms with rifles marching across it and barriers all around. We decided to find some dinner instead. Time was getting on. It had taken a long time to get the visa and then get to the centre of Beijing and we were aware we needed to leave plenty of time to get back to the airport.

We found a mall and even then we still had trouble finding food. It was about four degrees by this stage and very dark. One of the girls was wearing sandals. She insisted she wasn’t too cold but I was freezing even in jeans, shoes and my warmest jacket. The air hurt my face.

We ordered a huge meal to share between the three of us. The menu was quite extensive and there were lots of delicious looking things to try. However when it arrived I realised it would be the first meat I had eaten in a long time and my stomach squirmed at the thought of it. I lost my appetite a bit but didn’t want to miss out on trying Beijing food so forced some down.

We then got a taxi back to the airport with no stress and arrived nice and early for our flights. We found a place to sit and chill for a while. I was so glad I had met these girls as it really broke up the travel and we’d had a weird adventure in a very weird and confusing country to boot.

As we sat waiting for our flight, they overheard some other Italians talking about New Zealand, so asked them where they were going. It turned out they were on my flight so we all had a nice little chat for the last 20 minutes of our wait and then I left my first two Italian buddies with my new Italian flight buddies. I fell asleep pretty quickly on the plane and it wasn’t long before we were touching down in Auckland.

It was over.

After ten months, six countries (if you include Beijing), 37 blogs, several different jobs, countless new friends, and an appreciation for hot showers, I was back in the land of the long white cloud.

Tiananmen Square - Beijing

The Blue city of Jodhpur

#36 A lake, a yak and a whole lot of tea

I suspect the last blog of any trip is perhaps the hardest one to write. This one certainly has been.
Not only is there jet lag and post holiday blues to deal with, but reliving the memories so soon after getting thrown back into reality turns out to be quite difficult.

So, instead of moaning, I’m forcing myself to get on with it and write about what happened during the last month of what was the most interesting and challenging year of my life so far.

Our happy little threesome - the three hungry meditators  - became the two hungry meditators when SNAG left us to continue his travels sometime in early December. A couple of days after TBMF and I coughed up some cash and decided to hire a jeep to go to Changu Lake.

Changu Lake is a mountain lake very close to the China/Tibet border north of Gangtok. TBMF had heard that all we needed to do was actually get a permit and then we could simply hire a taxi and avoid having to go through a tourism agency. Sadly this was not the case and it was impossible to get the permit as individual tourists. So we had to hire a jeep, a guide and a driver all just to see this lake.
Luckily we asked around and found a place that would take us for a reasonable price. So off we went. We hadn’t been doing many touristy sight-seeing things since staying in Gangtok so it was nice to get out of the town for a bit.

The landscape was stunning and the road was very narrow and windy as we climbed high into the mountains at the very edge of India. It still didn’t really feel like India. It wasn’t busy, or colourful or chaotic. It was much more serene like Nepal, and cold, very cold.

When we reached the lake there was a very woolly, slightly depressed looking Yak standing next to the road which could give tourists rides. We opted to just take a photo and then wandered around the lake with our guide David (who told us very early on he was a ‘believer’). The lake was much smaller then we had imagined but the light and the colours were beautiful and there was snow on the hill side.

TBMF was itching to go for a proper adventure (one of the reasons I like her so much) and she headed off the beaten track up the biggest hill she could find as David and I followed slowly along behind.

 “I feel like you’re the guide and I’m the tourist!” David said as he scrambled higher and higher up this snowy hill. “I’ve never been here before!”

Walking got more difficult due to the altitude but we pressed on. Once we reached the top of the mountain we got a spectacular view of Mt Kanchenjunga which made it all worth it. There was a ropeway/cable car that took people up and down the hill and we snuck on it for a ride down which we weren’t charged for because no one suspected anyone would be mad enough to actually climb the hill on foot. We were very pleased with ourselves.

After lunch we were all very tired and we hopped back in the jeep for a quiet drive home.
TBMF had booked a helicopter ride that would take her from Gangtok to Bagdogra Airport near Siliguri for the next day but she was only allowed 10kg luggage. Luckily my bag was only about this weight and I didn’t want to go on the helicopter. I had already flown over the Himalayas twice during this year and couldn’t justify another expensive flight.

I suggested I take her 19kg bag with me in a jeep whilst she could take my 10kg one on the helicopter. This worked fine and we met each other in Darjeeling the next afternoon after her lifetime dream of flying in a helicopter had been accomplished.

We had found ourselves a nice little hostel to stay in but were taken by surprised by how cold it was in Darjeeling. Darjeeling is even higher up than Gangtok and the hostel had no heating. We piled on all our clothes, thermals, jackets, gloves, woolly socks and shawls before hopping into bed and laughing about how ridiculous we felt.

The next day we ventured out to explore our new environment and did what TBMF and I do best. We found a tea and cake shop and sat there using the wifi for a good while. Our time in Darjeeling passed quickly compared to when we were in Gangtok and we didn’t really do anything that touristy. We intended on going on the toy train however the price had gone up a ridiculous amount so we walked everywhere instead. We also had planned to go to a tea garden but that also was quite expensive and to be honest I was suffering from sight-seeing fatigue again. There just wasn’t anything I wanted to see that really excited me. I was quite content to just sit around drinking tea, talking and occasionally marvelling at how incredibly beautiful Mt Kanchenjunga looked at this distance. The closer we got to it, the more beautiful it was.

One afternoon TBMF convinced me to walk with her around this pretty little road she had found. As we were turning a slight bend we heard a rustle in the bushes above us and all of a sudden an enormous bolder crashed down in front of the people walking just in front of us. A few women screamed and ran for cover whilst the rest of us just stood in shock at how close we had come to both, almost being crushed, and to seeing someone else almost get crushed. The bolder made a large crack in the concrete and was stopped by the flimsy metal railing on the side of the path. There was a small altar nearby and a very grateful man made an offering to the gods as a thank you for not letting anyone be harmed that day.

TBMF and I hurriedly walked past before any more rocks could fall. ‘Annicca, annicca.’ ‘Impermanence, impermanence’ is what Goenka, the Vipassana teacher, would have said. The rock was a very clear reminder of the impermanence of life. It was as if the universe was just making sure we really understood the teachings of Vipassana.

Eventually it was time to leave Darjeeling and head down to New Jalpaiguri or NJP to catch a 25 hour train to Delhi to meet my New Zealand Friend who was flying in on the 11th. Unfortunately TBMF and I hadn’t been able to get a train on the 10th so I would be a little late meeting NZF. 

Of course our train was delayed any way because...well...India. First only by a few hours, and then a few more hours, and it got increasingly later the longer we were on it. It was like a form of torture. Every time we would check our arrival time it was about 30 minutes later than it had been. India was really testing our patience this time.

Usually it would have been fine, but because this time I was actually meeting somebody, and that person had limited time in India, and I was becoming increasingly aware that my time was limited as well, I was getting rather impatient.

Finally we made it to Delhi about 11 hours later than we were first meant to arrive. We found an auto which drove us on the wrong side of the road down some very busy streets towards our two separate hostels. We said our farewells standing on the side of a dirty street somewhere in New Delhi at about 11.30pm and that was the sad ending to what had been a wonderful time travelling with TBMF - who I'm very glad turned out not to be so temporary after all.

Changu Lake, Sikkim

Mandala in Darjeeling

The magnificent Mt Kanchenjunga

Saturday, 2 December 2017

#35 Mumbai, meditation and a monkey mind

SCMG's apartment was beautiful. It was full of leafy green plants and there was a large Abbey Road poster framed in the corner. His guitar leaned casually next to it.

It was so nice to see him again and really made me reflect on everything that had happened in the months between meeting him and returning to India. In a way it seemed a lifetime ago and in other ways it felt like we had met in Pushkar just the other day.

That evening we went out for a beer and then moved onto one of his friends apartments in the Fort area of Mumbai.

He seemed to know so many people and could call up anyone at anytime to hang out. Mumbaites have huge social circles. I was in awe. His friends were drinking with the singer of a blues band which was apparently very well known in India. I had no idea who they were so the level of celebrity was lost on me.

There was another man who worked for the Indian publication of the Rolling Stone magazine. I was super impressed by this and despite vaguely feeling like I was hanging out with people from a way cooler social circle than I should have been, they were lovely and very down to earth. Plus by this stage I'd had enough beer not to worry.

One of the girls brought out some North Indian food and it was some of the best food I've ever tasted in my life.

We made our way home shortly after and went to bed in the wee hours. This staying out all night theme was to become the norm for the rest of my time with SCMG.

I woke up late the next morning to the smell of something delicious cooking and relished in the feeling of having absolutely nothing to have to do.

That evening we went to a gig at SCMG's second home, a club called Antisocial. The woman we met the night before was performing with her band, Soulmate, in the basement. There was a huge crowd for a Tuesday night. In Mumbai, every night is a good night to go out. SCMG and I shared a long island iced tea because I have always been meaning to try one and had never got around to it. This seemed like the perfect moment to cross it off the bucket list. After the gig we got an auto home and crawled into bed in the early morning once again.

The rest of the week passed in a blur of lazy mornings, beer, ciggarettes, a few chilled evenings listening to SCMG play the guitar and meeting a lot of new people much cooler than me.

The night's were fast and the days slow. I was over stimulated, and on the verge of boredom at the same time, which was a curious state of mind to process as I attempted to understand Mumbai life and the contrast and complexities that came with it.

There was almost too many options for entertainment that it was so difficult to decide what to do.

Most middle class apartments have cooks and cleaners who come in to take care of the mundane tasks in life and this makes a huge difference to the attitudes and day to day lives of young urban professional Mumbaites. It appeared to me a very hedonistic lifestyle. We just did exactly what we wanted.

Of course I had to keep in mind the Mumbai I experienced was altered just by being present in this household. SCMG put as much of his life on hold as he could whilst I was there and, like any anthropological observation, the environment was altered just by the very fact it was being observed.

With this in mind I realised I would never be able to fully understand Mumbai life or have one true 'Mumbai experience' as there is no such thing.

The week in Mumbai did teach me one thing, and that was that there is still a very big white superiority complex raging in India. The India I experience is vastly different to the India Indians experience.

SCMG said something that really made this clear when we were out on two occasions. The first was at a very fancy, and in my opinion pretentious, club. I had no nice dresses to wear so I wore jeans, a very plain t-shirt and my jandals. I was feeling very under dressed when we reached the club but he told me I would be fine because I was white. Apparently this makes up for not making any effort to dress up and sure enough, we had no problem getting in, even though there was a guest list.

The second occasion was on my last night in Mumbai. We had been sleeping so late the rest of the week I decided to stay up all night because I would have to leave at 4 am to catch a taxi to the airport anyway. So we went out for some beers at a craft beer place and as we were sitting down, a very extroverted, slightly intoxicated girl called us over to drink with her at her table. We joined her and had a lovely conversation about all kinds of things from music, tattoos, New Zealand, Indian culture and hospitality.

One of the first things she said was "Come join me. India is known for its hospitality right?"

These words echoed those of my own. I've said it so many times before ever since my first trip. In my experience so far, Indian hospitality is out of this world. Later I was discussing this with SCMG.

"This only happens because you're white you know," he said.

Suddenly it all made sense. All this time I had been wandering through India thinking there was something amazing about it that I couldn't put my finger on. I'd been directly benefiting from some deeply ingrained desire to help the white girl.

All the random photos I'd been asked to be in, the invitations to join people for dinner, add them on whatsapp, the polite curiosity from strangers, this was quite possibly  direct result of what SCMG called 'a white superiority complex.'

I'm not going to attempt to delve into the deeper levels of colonialisation that resulted in this, nor will I comment on whether it is good or bad. It just simply is.

Of course, not everyone has this complex, but the long lasting effects of colonialisation definitely explains why the experience I had in Thailand and Vietnam was so different to India.

So after a quiet evening of amazing Indian street food, craft beer sampling, conversation with strangers who became new friends, and more guitar playing, I said goodbye to Mumbai and SCMG with a slightly heavy heart in the wee hours and started my long journey to Sikkim via Delhi.

It turns out that despite feeling like I'm getting older and wiser, I'm still very capable of being irresponsible and reckless. Staying up all night before 14 hours of travel is not the best decision I've made but a decision, perhaps, I had to make for some reason that will become clear later on.

I arrived in Bagdogra, Sikkim in the afternoon after having slept most of both plane rides there. I barely remember taking off or the safety instructions.

To travel in Sikkim, tourists need a permit which can be obtained easily for free at the airport. Once this was done, I learnt I could travel all the way to Gangtok that very afternoon in a shared jeep from Siliguri instead of staying the night there as I had planned, and even though I was very tired, I was keen to get there as soon as I could.

I was meeting Temporary But Meaningful Friend (see Chiang Rai blog) who turned out to be not so temporary after all and had decided to travel to India as well.

We planned to do a 10 day silent Vipassana Meditation course in Gangtok with only the mountains to talk to and then spend some time travelling together over the next few weeks.

So I met her in a cute little coffee shop on MG Marg, Gangtok, where she was having a coffee with a lovely older gentleman. We caught up about what had happened over the past couple of months since we first shared a cosy dorm in Chiang Rai.

She had met a nice American guy in Kolkata, who was also travelling in Sikkim, who joined us for lunch and the three of us headed to the same hotel.

That evening TBMF and I went out for beer and Thali (It seems like I've been drinking a lot of beer lately!). Thali is a plate of rice, curry and a selection of chutnies, sauces and condiments around the edge of the plate, which you mix together with your right hand with the rice. It's delicious, filling and fun to eat. Not to mention very good value for money - $4 NZD for a meal.

We had a good chat about everything that had happened in the last few weeks, discussed boys and life, and shared one final, very strong, local beer at the hotel where we watched silly YouTube videos and laughed until our side's hurt.

The next morning we had a breakfast of Indian snacks with the lovely American guy on the ridge above our hotel, washed down with several chai's before heading to the Vipassana registration head quarters.

I've thought a lot about how to describe the Vipassana course and, despite wanting to keep this blog as authentic and honest as possible, I've decided to keep the experience to myself.

If anyone has been thinking of doing one I would say it was one of the best, most difficult, painful and valuable experiences of my life so far. At first my mind was like a monkey, climbing all over the place, but I came out of it feeling at peace, refreshed, liberated and my mind felt stronger than ever.

When we were allowed to break our silence TBMF, Lovely American Guy (LAG) and I decided the best way to describe it was a defragmentation for your brain. It simply cannot be explained in words. It has to be experienced.

The three of us spent the next week hanging in Gangtok, drinking ALOT of tea, sitting in coffee shops, playing cards against humanity and making the occasional day trip to see the sights.

The hotel we were staying in had a four bed dorm for a very reasonable price and served amazing food so we were very comfortable there. The owner was so lovely and supplied us with all the blankets and hot water we needed as well as answering any questions we had. (If you ever go to Gangtok, make sure to stay at Hotel Pandim. Say hello to the owner Kesan and order their curd and honey muesli for breakfast - it's the best!).

I will leave Gangtok with very happy memories not just because it is a beautiful place but because I had brilliant company and the days passed easily and happily despite not doing many touristy things. It was great to just stay in one place for a while and really let ourselves soak up the atmosphere, explore the town properly and plan our next steps.

Mumbai life 

Soulmate performing at Antisocial, Mumbai

South Mumbai is full of beautiful colonial style architecture

View from Hotel Pandim over Gangtok, Sikkim

View from the Vipassana centre. Ten days of this view made it totally worth it.

We had delicious breakfasts and chai every morning at Hotel Pandim. It really became a highlight of the day!

#34 Auroville adventures, a spontaneous stop in Mahabs and chaotic Chennai

After Pondicherry I, very eagerly, headed to Auroville. I had been intrigued about this place since I heard about it earlier this year from SCMG and several other people I met along the way.

After asking around, I found a bus that would take me almost all the way and I could get an auto the rest of the way.

After missing the first bus, I stood on the side of the road and waited in the light drizzle for the next one, which a nice man selling Indian snacks, helped me identify and flag down.

I squeezed myself and my bag onto the very full bus and bumped along for about 20 mins for 20 rupees as the bus blared cheerful Bollywood tunes. Local busses make me so happy. The more uncomfortable the better. I think it's the novelty. This was how I'd imagined India and travel adventures when it was all just a day dream.

I caught an auto from the main road into Auroville and the driver told me about his family as we slid about on the red, clay roads. He had two daughters who were coming up to marriagable age but he was worried he couldn't afford to marry them off because he needed to provide a big dowry. One of them would have to wait and finish her studies first before he could afford to arrange a marriage for her.

After about 15 minutes I was in Auroville. I was so curious to discover this mysterious place. I got dropped at the visitors centre where I made some enquiries about accomodation. There was a reasonably cheap mixed dorm just inside the town for 350 rupees which sounded perfect.

Inside Auroville there is limited public transport so the best way to get around is to hire a bike/scooter just outside. This way you are independent and can explore much further.

There is also a free shuttle service to some accomodation places so I took this option. As it had been raining quite a lot, and the roads were all ocre coloured clay, everything was very slippery and muddy but over all the place had a very peaceful atmosphere and there were lots of trees and open green spaces. The roads were quiet and everyone was just getting on with life.

I saw quite a few non-Indians driving scooters around but I never knew if they were tourists like me or residents. There were also lots of Indians going about their daily tasks. It still felt like India, but on a smaller, more relaxed scale.

After a cheap dinner of Samosa's I curled up in bed and continued to read The Life of Pi as the rain gently pattered outside.

The next day I decided to walk to the information centre and read up on the history of Auroville. Simply put, Auroville is an experimental township, for people of all nationalities to live together in harmony.

The founder, who is referred to as The Mother, wanted there to be one place on earth that belonged to everyone. The story goes that she randomly pointed to a spot on a map which turned out to be a large empty area. Here, people spent many years creating the village which is built around a central structure called the Matrimandir.

This is an enormous gold globe-shaped building that is solely for meditation and inner reflection.

The whole idea of Auroville was, and still is, very appealing to me. Some people told me they found it cult-like and creepy but I didn't get that vibe at all. It really depends on what state of mind you are in when you arrive, your pre-conceived ideas and expectations. It seemed very ordinary and harmless to me.

It isn't laid out for tourists at all. It's purely residential so it can be quite difficult to get around if you don't know where you are going or what you want to do. I spent the first few days just finding my feet, renting a bike and trying to navigate my way around.

It's the kind of place where the longer you stay, the more you get out of it. I stayed only three days but by the last one I was finally feeling like I understood it a bit more.

On my second night, a guy from Chennai arrived in the dorm, and we had a nice conversation about Indian politics, the caste system and his work with fishing communities around Mahabalipuram and beyond.

He was starting a social enterprise which aimed to help these communities find other ways of making an income and working together.

He was very passionate about it and was in Auroville to meet with some other people, who had started similar social enterprises, to get ideas. India is full of these amazing, highly educated, compassionate, young social entrepreneurs.

We decided to get dinner together and I rode on the back of his bike to the outskirts of Auroville. Afterwards we wanted to find some beer and ended up driving almost all the way into Pondicherry as alcohol isn't sold in Auroville.

On the way back it started to pour down and we got completely saturated but we had the beer so it was worth it. The rain was warm and refreshing and I'm a big fan of riding as a passenger on scooters.

After drying off, we sat on the balcony of our dorm and sneakily sipped our beers like naughty school children. It tasted twice as good simply because it had been so hard to find and because we weren't supposed to drink inside Auroville.

The next morning he invited me to go with him into Pondi again - this time to the beach. He had some business calls to make so I sat on the rocks and soaked up the ocean air. I was still madly in love with this place and very happy to have found nice company.

After a while we got some breakfast of idly - fermented rice cakes with coconut and chilli chutney - and dosa - a large pancake type of bread with potato and spices inside - and headed back to our dorm.

It was time for him to go back to Chennai and I went off on my bike again exploring. I was really enjoying driving around on the quiet roads, and breathing in the clean air, so I wasn't too worried about finding things to do.

The next evening a very excited young man from Mumbai arrived in the dorm and we had a nice chat about travelling and the different places in India we had been. We had breakfast together with the other girls the next morning.

I was almost tempted to stay and explore with him because his enthsiasm for Auroville was contagious but decided I had seen enough and it was time to move on.

Quite a few people had told me to avoid Chennai for as long as possible so I took their advice and headed for a place called Mahabalipuram instead which was suggested by one of the dorm girls.

I found a local bus thanks to an honest auto driver (30 rupees for an hour long ride!) and squeezed myself in again. A beautiful old Indian woman sat next to me and after a few shy smiles put her hand in mine and we sat the rest of the ride that way. She spoke to me in Hindi and I to her in English. Between the two of us we figured out some of what we were saying.

She admired the tattoo on my wrist and I admired hers which I assume had some religious significance and she offered me snacks. This is why I love local busses.

I arrived in Mahabalipuram and walked from the bus stop to my accomodation easily. The town had a cheerful seaside vibe and I liked it immediately.

I found my hotel without having to get an auto (always a win in my books) which was very close to the beach and had a super friendly host. Everything about it was perfect. The room was lined with beautiful blue flowered tiles and there was a large courtyard in the centre of the hotel which was decorated by large green leafy plants.

The host told me the best place to go for Thali (a very good reccomendation) and I ate it off a banana leaf with my hand without even thinking about it. I was surprised at how naturally it came back after all these months in Thailand and a month using chop sticks in Vietnam.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the beach and wandering around the streets soaking up the atmosphere. The next morning, after coffee and pancakes, I set out to see the rock carvings which make Mahabalipuram famous.

There's also a large boulder, which looks as if it is defying laws of gravity, called Krishna's butter ball. Apparently it was named by Ghandi and is a reference to the story where the Hindu god Krishna steals a ball of butter.

It was free to wander around these amazing carvings and I spent a good few hours examining them and reading the sign boards.

When I got back to the hotel the friendly host asked if there was anything I needed.

"More blankets? Beer? Something to smoke?"

I was very impressed with his eagerness to help and said thank you very much but I was fine. I guess those are the most common things tourists want.

I had a quiet evening in reading and drinking the last beer left over from Auroville. Life was goooood!

The next day I took two more local busses to Chennai and was glad I didn't arrive any earlier than I had to. It was a busy, dirty, frantic city. The only reason I was there was to catch a flight to Mumbai to visit SCMG.

I checked into possibly the smallest hotel room ever and made myself comfy with a bounty bar and my book.

The room was so small, the bed which was quite narrow already, hung over the edge of the bathroom door. I had to laugh. It was very cheap but it did feel a tiny bit like a cell. There were no windows and the thought of how I would escape if there was a fire flickered across my mind. Thankfully I had an uneventful evening and a reasonably good sleep before I caught an auto to the airport at 5am the next morning.

Before I knew it I was in Mumbai and in a taxi heading to Andheri West to see SCMG.

The Matrimandir, Auroville - Tamil Nadu

Krishna's Butterball, Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram beach and fishing boats

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#33 Vietnam part 2 & A hopeless romantic in Pondi

Every time I've travelled to India things have happened in sequence just before that cannot be explained.

This time two things happened that made me think, as ridiculous as it sounds, that India was calling extra loud this time.

The first thing was a spontaneous purchase. For some reason I was drawn to a man selling books on the streets of Hanoi. He had a friendly, intelligent face and something made stop and investigate what he had for sale, despite my limited budget. He had the usual historical novels and guidebooks which I flicked past. Then a book with a blue cover caught my eye. It was the Life of Pi and I made a spur of the moment decision to buy it.

It wasn't until I got back to the hostel that I remembered it was set in Pondicherry, India at the beginning. I was going Pondicherry! This was the first sign.

The second coincidence was a message from Super Chill Mumbai Guy. He messaged me on the exact day I was flying despite not having a clue when I had booked my flights for.

Call it a coincidence, or whatever you want, but as far as I was concerned India was calling loud and clear. The universe was unfolding as it should.

My last few days in Vietnam passed quickly. The new volunteer arrived at the hotel and I played pool one night with a group of Spanish friends I met.

We also went to Viet Hai fishing village again for a night with Viet's friends, and Stevie, the other Vietnamese guy who worked at the hotel.

This time we visited a cave, went hiking and had a campfire in the evening. We sat around it drinking Hanoi beer, cooking corn on the cob and telling scary stories under the starry night sky.

Viet then informed me I should go on a boat tour the next day. So I did. On the boat tour we visited Monkey Island and climbed up some seriously dangerous and jagged rocks. I was amazed at the lack of safety precautions and that no one hurt themselves. I even did it in jandals!

We stopped near Halong Bay and were told we could jump off the boat for a swim. It was quite high up and because I was on my own I had no one to egg me on. So I sat for a while and watched everyone else jump off. Finally I decided maybe I could do it too. So I did! And it wasn't even that bad. We then did some kayaking through some impressive sea caves before heading home.

That evening Viet convinced us to go out as it was my last night on the island. I was so tired I had to have a little nap first like an old lady. This seemed to work and after a while I was awake enough to join them. We went to one bar that played western music and served laughing gas in balloons for free during happy hour. I'd never come across this before and decided to give it a go. It was a very weird sensation that I would not like to repeat and it didn't even make us laugh. I'll stick to laughing at genuinely funny things instead. Much more enjoyable.

After a few more beersies and several different bars I spotted a Canadian couple that had been on my boat earlier so I went to say hi. They were also going to India soon so we exchanged details in case we were ever in the same place again. The evening passed uneventfully and eventually we decided it was time to head home in the wee hours.

The next morning we slept late and Viet informed me that my bus to Hanoi would leave at 4. I kicked around the hotel until then and said a final hurtied goodbye. Funnily enough I met the same Canadian couple on the boat back to Hanoi and we had a nice chat to pass the time.

I arrived in Hanoi around dinner time and found my hostel. It had a cheap female only dorm and free beers between 6-7pm which I decided to opy out of (by this stage I had consumed more beer in the last week than any other week of my life including in my first year of uni).

The next day I explored Hanoi on foot with an old fashioned paper map. I wanted to see Ho Chi Minh's body which was on display in a mausoleum. Sadly I got there too late and it was closed. Instead I got to look around the house he worked and lived in and wander around the old presidential grounds.

I liked Hanoi. It was elegant. There were cute little boutique stores, coffee shops on every corner and really good sandwhiches for around $NZD 1.

That evening I ventured out again, after a rest, to a lake in the centre of the city. That's what I like about Hanoi. If you stay in the old quarter everything is walking distance so you can see things wihout wasting money on taxis.

There were also enough things to see just on the streets that meant you could have a good taste of the city without having to buy tickets to all the 'must see' things. I did happen upon a water puppet theatre however and spontaneously decided to book a ticket because why the heck not.

So I went to the theatre by myself and it was great. The water puppets are controlled by people behind a screen with long sticks. They were very skilled and pulled off the whole performance without a hitch.

That evening I unpacked and repacked my whole bag in preparation for my international flight to Trichy, India. After my Vietnam immigration kerfuffle I wanted to make sure I was properly prepared for this one.

I don't know if it was the two very strong Vietnamese coffees I'd had that day, or excitement, or both but I hardly slept that night. My mind was already on the bustling streets of Trichy before I'd even reached the airport.

A hopeless romantic in Pondi

The next morning I left the hostel at 5.30 am to get to the airport nice and early. After one final delicious Vietnamese coffee I was off to Kuala Lumpur. This time I got the window seat but I barely looked up from the Life of Pi the whole 3 hours. I was hooked! It was a literal page turner and I can totally see why it won so many awards.

We soon reached Kuala Lumpur and I found a nice cheap meal of Nasi Goreng for lunch. After going through customs again, time flew, and it wasn't long before I was at my boarding gate.

Now things were starting to get real! I was the only white face in a sea of Indian ones. I felt so out of place and the nerves kicked in again. Trichy didn't seem to be a standard place for western travellers to visit. I was really getting off the beaten track.

On the flight from KL to Trichy I was wedged between a Malaysian Muslim couple who didn't speak or look at one another for the first hour until the lady was given a biryani, ate the biryani, and then, from what I could gather, complained that it wasn't a biryani. The flight attendants weren't happy.

Immigration went smoothly when I arrived in Trichy. The airport was old and dusty and there was a sleepy looking man at the e-tourist visa desk who looked very alarmed when I walked up to his desk. He probably didn't have much to do on most days and was watching a Bollywood video clip on his phone when I interrupted him with my visa requirements.

My bag arrived and I withdrew rupees from the ATM without any problem this time. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. I was literally the ONLY foreigner in the whole airport. I could feel eyes on me but no one hassled me and even the taxi drivers were very relaxed.

Because I was arriving during daylight hours I hadn't booked a hotel. All the ones I could find online were kind of expensive and I had read there were plenty scattered around the bus station so wasn't too worried. The first few I tried didn't have rooms left but I found a reasonably cheap one after a while with no problems. The man on the front desk first tried to charge me 990 rs for a non A.C. room but when I walked away the price miraculously dropped to 660 rs instead. This is what I love about Asia!

The room was basic but clean and the bed was very comfortable. There was no shower but I am getting better at washing with a bucket now so it wasn't a problem.

That evening I went back out to find food. The hotel was crammed along side the very busy bus station and I wended my way through the crowds again feeling as though all eyes were on me. I felt like people were looking at me, but actually, I don't think they were.

I didn't catch many stares, at least, none that made me uncomfortable. They were just brief glances of surprise much like I would give a woman wearing a saree back home. I was the equivalent of that here. A random white girl wearing pants and a t-shirt whilst everyone else was in sarees and kurtas.

It's hard to describe the level of happiness I felt when I got back to my room and stuck my head out the window to survey the chaotic scene below. It felt SO good to be back in India and I have no idea why.

Maybe it was the people. The food? The sounds? The way the traffic moves? The warm air? The smells, both good and bad? The electric energy. I was asleep before 10pm after a long day of travelling.

When I woke up the next morning a smile crept over my face when I remembered where I was. As I lay there listening to the cheerful honking outside, I briefly mourned Vietnamese coffee, but I soon got over it when I remembered I could find a delicious steaming cup of chai instead. Sweet, cinnamony, milky goodness with a thin layer of skin on the top. Mmmmhmmmm. This was very much the right decision. Why hadn't I come back sooner??

I wandered around the town for a bit after a breakfast of some kind of sweet pastry and a mandarin I'd accidentally brought with me from Vietnam.

Then I discovered my Indian SIM card was no longer registered so I sat at the Vodafone centre for hours whilst they filled out enough paper work for me to have been sworn in as the new the prime minister of India or something. I even had to name either my husband or my father and provide an Indian address and reference. Patriachy is still alive and well in India. But we all already knew that!

Finally I had a SIM with unlimited calls and a reasonable amount of data to last my entire trip. The ladies at the store were SO lovely and taught me some new words in Tamil and Hindi whilst we waited.

I had a quick lunch of samosas and went back to the hotel room to consider my options. I could catch a local bus to Pondicherry that afternoon or stay another night in Trichy in the hotel and go the next day. I decided to catch the bus that afternoon. Pondicherry sounded nice and I wanted to get there as soon as I could. The bus also happened to leave right outside my hotel. It would mean arriving in the dark around 9pm but I decided to risk it.

Admittedly I was a little wary of catching a local bus at night time but I felt braver now I had a working cellphone and data. If I began to feel uncomfortable I would simply get off the bus and find a safe hotel to wait until morning. Plus I strongly believe that you'll always be surrounded by more decent, kind people in India than bad ones, despite what everyone who has never been, will tell you.

It was as if immense and insatiable curiosity transported me to Pondicherry rather than the rickety old bus I squeezed myself and my backpack onto.

For the next 5 hours I sat next to various beautiful South Indian women who smelt of the flowers in their hair and gave me shy smiles. One woman in a pink saree fell asleep on my shoulder. Two boys sold me warm roasted salted peanuts wrapped in a piece of newspaper written in Hindi and shot me brilliant white smiles when I handed them some extra rupees.

I'm constantly in awe of how smoothly everything works in India. I was dropped off in Cuddlelore right next to my connecting bus. This bus cost 30rs for an hours journey and was just like the city busses in NZ. It was brightly lit so I felt very safe even though it was dark and raining outside by this stage.

It's difficult to describe how much happiness I felt as I listened to the scrambled sounds of Tamil (Tamil Nadu's dialect) spoken around me and the gentle Bollywood music that played in the bus.

I arrived in Pondicherry around 9pm as expected and caught a rickshaw to my hotel (which I had booked in advance on my phone on the bus ride as I knew I would be arriving after dark - that's my rule now - only book if it's a matter of safety).

The hotel was dirty and run down but had a certain charm to it. It had an open court yard with Chinese lanterns hanging across it. There were some sad looking pot plants that desperatley wanted watering, huddled around the winding staircase. The walls had once been painted a cheerful blue but now the paint was peeling off and the floors needed a good scrub. I didn't mind. There was a bed and a bathroom. That's all I needed.

The poor boy at reception looked at me like he'd just seen a ghost. Obviously he didn't get many strange foreign women travelling alone and checking in at 9.30 at night. I had to suppress a giggle. Instead of feeling self- conscious I was beginning to find people's reactions to my solo-ness kind of funny and quaint.

Pondicherry had an unexpected effect on me. They say the feeling of falling in love is actually just a rush of dopamine similar to taking a drug. Well this is the only way I can explain how I felt the next day when I discovered this beautiful little town.

I fell completely and unapologetically head over heels in love. I don't think I've ever really, properly been in love with a person before so it's probably a bit weird that my first love is a place.

The combination of elegant French architecture plus the South Indian vibes, food, smells, smiles and French coffee made for giddy, addictive combination.

I wandered down a small road towards where I thought the beach was. Suddenly the sky got wider and there it was! The glorious Andaman Sea!

A comforting breeze ruffled the palm trees on the boulevard and men with bamboo ladders hung fairy lights from trees. It looked like they were preparing for some kind of event. People were also hanging banners in the Indian flag colours from a gazebo and rickshaws bleated as they hurried past.

I found a cafe by the beach which served croissants and French coffee and sat there for a while watching the waves and people pass by.

I dreamt of marrying a nice Pondicherry boy and living out the rest of my days writing nonsense and drinking French coffee by the sea.

For the first time in a long time I had made a very, very good decision! The next two months were going to be great! I could tell already.

Antique store - Hanoi. October, 2017.

The streets of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India. October, 2017

Can I just live here forever now?

Monday, 16 October 2017

#32 Vietnam part 1 - Goodnight Saigon, Gooood morning Vietnam!

The Vietnam chapter started with a now funny bump in the road. It wasn't that funny at the time but thank goodness it all worked out.

With all the good chat the day before my flight I completely forgot to get $USD 25 out to pay for my Visa on Arrival. I thought I would find a cash machine at the airport and do that whilst I waited for my flight from Bangkok however I discovered that once I was through immigration there was no way of getting cash out! I was stuck.

Even the information desk people couldn't help me after I explained my problem. Surely I wasn't the only person to have this issue? Was I getting a bit too casual about this whole international flight thing?

There didn't seem much I could do about it so I tried not to worry and looked online to see if anyone had written anything about this before. They had. And luckily it said that the immigration staff could escort you to an ATM outside the airport to get cash on arrival in Vietnam.

It turned out the staff at Ho Chi Minh airport were really brisk and unfriendly towarfs everyone which was not a great first impression but I guess they've got more important things to worry about than customer service.

When my time came to get cash out I couldn't remember which account I was meant to select as I hadn't used this card for about four months.

Unfortunately I must have pressed the wrong account too many times and my card became locked! This really was a disaster because no one working at the airport had a phone that I could use to call my bank.

After talking to one unhelpful staff member after another I finally found a very kind immigration officer who came up with a solution. She lent me $10 USD to buy a Vietnamese SIM card so I could phone the bank and unlock my card. Thank goodness for kind people!

By this stage I'm sure stress was written all over my face. I spoke to the bank staff and it was so good to hear that New Zealand accent and speak to people who actually understood me! I unlocked my card and withdrew enough money to pay the woman back, for my Visa and a taxi into town.

So Vietnam and I got off on the wrong foot but I was determined the next day would be better and that I was going to like this place. As I sat in the back of the taxi whilst we crawled along in horrendous Ho Chi Minh rush hour traffic, the driver put on a CD, and I immediately recognised the familiar notes of the Hotel California intro.

For some reason hearing this conpletely erased all the stress. It was all going to be fine. I could relax and laugh about everything now.

The hostel I stayed in the first three nights was right in the centre of the city on the most touristy road but for once I didn't mind. I met a nice Spanish guy in my dorm and was really grateful to have someone to laugh with about my misadventure at the airport.

The next day I managed to avoid being roped into any expensive tours by the hostel owners and got a map so I could explore on foot. It was time to really tighten the purse strings because my baht weren't going as far as I would have liked and I still needed it to last until December at least.

I decided to look at it as a challenge. How much of the city could I experience for free? I visited most of the main sights and just looked at them from the outside instead of paying to go in. I know it sounds silly but I'm over 'must see' things in cities anyway. I did, however, fork out a whopping NZD 90 cents to go to the War Remnants Museum and I'm very glad I did.

There was a collection of horrific photos taken during the American-Vietnam war and which made quite a lasting impression. I also enjoyed learning about the American soldiers who burnt their draft cards and refused to go to Vietnam. I feel like that is equally as brave as the soldiers who fought. Standing up for what you believe in is admirable no matter what, in a way. Despite the terrible things that led to the museum's existence, I'm glad it exists. Thousands of people are reminded of the attrocities that happened on Vietnamese soil every day and I hope we can all agree that we should make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

That evening I chilled at the hostel and chatted to the Spanish guy a bit more. He was there for skating. He had these cool little wheels that went on each foot and apparently there is quite a community of this flavor of skaters in Ho Chi Minh. He was so passionate about it and you could see his eyes light up when he talked about skating.

The following day I did a bit more exploring on foot by the river and in the afternoon I met up with a guy from Saudi Arabia who had appeared in the dorm in the Spanish guys place without me realising.

I had been very confused when I woke up and found a different person in the bed next to me than the person I had said good night to! Apparently there had been a booking error and I slept through the whole debacle.

Nevertheless he was also good company and we decided that we both wanted to taste crocodile as I had seen it on the menu somewhere near by. As we headed out, we met the Spanish guy again, and invited him to join us. He was vegetarian but keen to try something new.

We found a stall at the night market and chowed down. It was surprisingly delicious! It can only be  described as tasting like really good chicken. As we ate, the heavens opened, and we had to decide what to do next. Spanish guy suggested we try to climb up the tallest building to see the city at night, so off we went. We were pretty saturated, but the rain was so warm, we didn't mind.

Sadly it was too expensive to get to the top of the building so we made do with the poor mans view out another much lower window. It was fun nonetheless and we stopped on the way back at some street vendors to taste some Vietnamese moon cakes and chewy rice sweets.

The Spanish guy had to go to a new hostel so the Saudi Arabian guy and I snuck up to the rooftop of our hostel. He smoked a joint and I made him tell me his life story as the rain continued to fall on the tin roof and the lights of Ho Chi Minh stretched out in front of us under a haze of water droplets.

The next day I had a flight to Hanoi and made two errors of judgement. The first one was choosing a hostel that the Saudi Arabian guy reccomended and the second one was not researching the cheapest way to get from the airport to the city. Instead I opted for a metered taxi and of course the driver chose the longest way. I was watching this on Google maps but I decided not to get angry at him because it was my own fault for trusting him and I didn't realise soon enough to make him go the shorter way.

How was I still making these stupid mistakes? I am now at the stage in my trip where these mistakes could mean the difference between affording to stay another month in India and having to go home soon. Silly, silly me.

That night I was in an 18 bed dorm with people who really loved partying. I wandered around the markets finding dinner for as long as I could to avoid having to socialise and then lay on my top bunk watching Max Key (son of former Prime Minister John Key) vlogs (video blogs) and wondering what I was doing with my life as crappy music thumped away below me.

I lied. I made three bad decisions that day and the Max Key vlogs were one of them.

The next day my workaway host Viet had arranged a bus to pick me up to take me to Cat Ba Island. You can now drive most of the way thanks to a road that connects the mainland with the nearby island of Haiphong. Then you are required to take a speed boat the rest of the way and then another bus through the National Park to the town. The island was very scenic but I was so tired from not being able to sleep in the hostel in Hanoi that I slept most of the way.

When I reached the town the driver showed me to the place I was meant to be meeting Viet down a little alley near the main road. After a very brief meeting Viet went off to have lunch with the bus driver and I was left alone awkwardly having lunch with his family who spoke about two words of English.

I didn't really know what was going on. The hotel wasn't the same one he had told me about and I wasn't sure if this was where I would stay permanently. I also wasn't sure if I was guarunteed to get the workaway job or not and it was all very confusing.

I ended up falling asleep in the room he gave me as I waited for him to get back. Later he sent an email saying to meet him for coffee and to talk about the job, so off I went.

My first impression was that he wasn't your typical Vietnamese person. He seemed very highly strung. Perhaps it was the stress of starting his own online business. He proceeded to talk at 100 miles a minute about his website and chain smoked about six Saigon cigarettes in the space of an hour.

Then we were off having dinner with some friends of his who would be joining us on a tour the next day to Viet Hai fishing village. They were British. The son had been living in Vietnam for two years and his father and step mother were visiting him for two weeks.

The conversation jumped between politics to Vietnamese culture to Viet teaching his friend phrases to say when he wanted to pick up Vietnamese girls.

His friend then proceeded to roll a joint and smoke it right there with his dad. I was still so surprised at how openly people smoked weed here compared to Thailand.

I'd only been in the country four days but every day someone new lit up a joint in my presence. I concluded I should stop being surprised and just accept that things are very different in Asia especially when police officers can easily be bribed.

The next morning we all headed off to Beo Pier and took a small boat across Lan Ha Bay which is part of the larger and more famous Halong Bay. I  thought I was getting hard to impress but even I couldn't deny the beauty of this place. I'd never seen anything like it.

The limestone karsts towered above mirror - like water and the jungle was such a vibrant green.

We arrived at Viet Hai Fishing Village after about an hour and took an electric bus to a homestay where Viet told us about the traditional agricultural methods of early Vietnamese farmers.

We then walked to the site of an old village. The houses were mostly made of stone and the greyness against the bright green of the jungle around it was a beautiful contrast. We were the only ones there and it really felt like we were being let in on a very well kept secret.

Viet showed us to a river where he told us to take off our shoes and let the fish nibble at our toes. I was no more convinced than the first time I tried a fish spa in Chiang Mai. My feet are just too ticklish!

That afternoon Viet's friends had to leave and it was just me and him. He was going to show me the rest of the tour the next day so I could write about it for the website.

After a delicious meal sitting on the floor with the homestay family, Viet and the other men to sat around smoking and chatting. I left them to it and went to bed.

The next day it was time to go kayaking. We took a tiny local boat to a fisherman's house where Viet told me to go kayaking on my own in the mini bay. It was perfectly safe because there was only one way in and one way out.

They gave me a huge double kayak and a wonky paddle and off I went struggling to keep it heading in a straight line.

I explored for about an hour and then made our way back for lunch and to a junk that took us back to Cat Ba.

Viet and I met up the next afternoon and he gave me a brief description about what he wanted me to write about. The next few days were a bit of a struggle if I'm honest. He didn't like what I wrote and I didn't understand what he wanted from me. I settled for correcting some of the articles he had already written. It was very time consuming because first I had to figure out what he was trying to say and then re-word it.

I found myself getting very angry because he kept changing his mind. It had also been raining for two days straight and the foyer of the hotel had flooded. It was all a bit of a disaster.

Finally we had a sunny day and Viet told me to take the day off. I walked up to the Cannon Fort and explored some Viet Cong tunnels.

The next day we really started working. I still found it difficult to nail down exactly what he wanted or get much direction at all. It felt like he was impossible to please.

After a lot of frustration and a very heated discussion about marketing vs journalism we finally figured out why we were clashing. We were seeing things from two very different perspectives. I wanted to present factual, useful information, whilst he wanted flowery, exaggerated writing designed to make people want to spend their money and that's why I was feeling so angry!

We were both so glad to figure it out and realise it wasn't personal after all. It was just our professional backgrounds that made it hard for us to understand one another. Once that weight was lifted we got on SO much better and had some really good conversations.

On another of my days off I hired a motorbike and drove to the National Park with a Dutch girl that was staying in the hotel. We hiked up to the top of one of the peaks and the view was incredible. It was also blimmin humid and we were sweating from every pore.

Another morning I went for a walk around the clifftops and marvelled at the monstrous resorts that have popped up along the beach front.

One evening Viet took me on the back of his scooter and we drove around the island at dusk. It was fantastically beautiful. The images will be forever etched in my memory. The infinite shades of green, the gentle golden glow of the sun as it sunk into the sea, the smell of some kind of unfamiliar flower perfuming the air and the welcomed breeze that comes with riding on a scooter. Perhaps this was going to be ok after all.

I was reminded of the copy of Desiderata that hangs at my mothers house and the line that reads 'no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.'

No doubt indeed!  There's something very comforting about that.

The entrance to an old Vietnamese village in Viet Hai tucked between magnificent craggy limestone mountains and surrounded by infinite shades of green.

Fishing with Viet and the host family -Viet Hai

They let me out on my own in the bay!

The Vietnam flag and the spectacular Lan Ha Bay.

One of the three beautiful beaches on Cat Ba Island - This is Cat Co 2.

Looking out over Cat Ba National Park.

Crocodile meat for sale at the night market in Saigon.