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.

#31 Thailand part 10 - Trouble in paradise

After the mixed bag that was Phuket and Koh Phi Phi I was desperate to find somewhere to stay for a while to relax properly.

Sadly that was easier said than done. The time I spent on Koh Phangan coincided with election time in New Zealand and for some reason myself and a lot of my friends felt incredibly emotionally invested in the result. It felt so personal and our general optimisim and happiness was on the line.

Since it's so easy to stay connected to everyone these days I wasn't strong enough to avoid the news or the messages from friends. In fact I actively searched for updates and discussions about what was going on.

It sounds so stupid but even though I was half way around the world and there wasn't anything I could do about it, when the results came in to say we had a hung parliament, I couldn't help but feel a surge of disappointment.

How could this be? Everyone had been so hopeful and yet things were so, so close. A weight settled heavily on my heart and even though I really loved Koh Phangan and was staying at a really great place with dorms for $NZD 4 a night, I still couldn't fully relax and enjoy its natural beauty.

I spent a lot of time lying on beaches worrying about things I could do nothing about. If got bored of that I'd worry about the amount of rubbish on the island. After I'd exhausted that topic, I'd stress over my finances, or my future career, or over America and North Korea, or the benefit system in New Zealand. It was all very unproductive and useless.

Despite feeling a bit blue, I carried on searching for experiences that would distract me. One day I hired a scooter and explored the island and another day I rented a mask and snorkel. These activities gave me some temporary relief. I visited a vegan resturant that Super Chill Mumbai Guy told me to visit and passed on a hug to the owner from him. There were so many vegan and vegetarian resturants that I decided I would do a meat detox whilst I was there. For some reason it just felt like the right thing to do even though I'm a stubborn Omnivore.

The whole experience was a good example of how even though life might look fantastic from the outside it's whats going on inside that really makes a difference. I wanted to write about it in the interest of being completely honest in this blog. In this age where everyone has a personal online brand I think its more important than ever to stay as grounded and authentic as possible.

Thankfully after mulling over all the problems in the world for a few days I eventually did find some kind of inner - peace and with that I left the island and arrived back in Surat Thani.

Here I met a girl from Singapore. Even though I'm becoming more and more cynical about these short term travel friendships, as long as you manage to get all the small talk out of the way early on, these brief encounters can be really rewarding.

Thankfully she was also keen to discuss things on a deeper level and we spent the day together drinking coffee, going to the bank to transfer baht to my NZ account and talking about life, love, travel, teaching and everything in between.

It was amazing how just having a good conversation completely dragged me out of the funk I'd been stuck in for the past few weeks.

It was also interesting experiencing Thailand through her eyes. She looked like she could be Thai and even though she couldn't speak the language she got local prices for things whereas when I asked I was given the tourist price. All this because of the colour of our skin!

I'd found a great workaway opportunity on Cat Ba Island in the North of Vietnam where I could write content for a website in return for free accomodation, food, and some free tours. I had already booked my flight to Ho Chi Minh because I'd done no research about Vietnam at all and just liked the idea of visiting a city I'd heard a little bit about from friends.

I was mostly looking forward to saying 'Goooooooood morning Vietnam' everytime I woke up and finding out how much dong (Vietnam's currency) I could get for my dollar, along with all the other dong jokes I planned on fitting into my days.

Little did I know there were many more exciting things to do in Vietnam than making dong jokes, shouting unoriginal movie references and listening to Billy Joel's Goodnight Saigon on repeat.

So on the 29th of September I said my farewells to Thailand after almost 5 months and boarded a plane to Ho Chi Vegas ready for a new chapter.

View from Haad Chao Phao Resort on Koh Phangan. Ridiculously cheap dorms, close to a beautiful beach, perfectly chilled atmosphere and this girl still couldn't relax.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

#30 Thailand part 9 - The heights of hedonism and feeling crabby in Krabi

It's funny how the universe provides us exactly what we need when we need it. Literally as I was finishing off my last blog and wondering what I was doing with my life, in walked yet another important stone in this pathway.

I'll call her temporary but meaningful friend (T.B.M.F) for short. She had the same vibe as the Mumbai friends I'd met in Pushkar at Holi and it turned out that she had travelled around India for three months and spent time at some of the same places Super Chill Mumbai Guy had. She was teaching English as well but was almost finished and about to head back to England.

We had a lot in common and spent the afternoon chilling down by the river drinking Leo beer chatting about everything. Somehow the conversation kept coming back to India. She made me realise how much I missed India and wanted to go back.

Just chatting with her helped everything become clear. There was no point visiting Cambodia and Laos if my heart wasn't really in it.

She also convinced me the best way to see Chiang Rai was by scooter so the next day I braved up and hired one. I'm so glad I did because it meant I got out of the town and could explore on my own terms without any guide telling me where to go and what to do.

First I visited a waterfall about an hour away which was beautiful and very peaceful. It was blissful to walk in the jungle on my own and reconnect with nature. There's really nothing like it. Afterwards I felt better than I had done since I left Phibun.

I also visited the famous white temple which was touristy but enjoyable nonetheless. I felt so free having the scooter and decided to keep it for the next day as well.

That evening T.B.M.F and I went to a cat cafe. It was bizarre.The cats seemed very serene but also very haughty. They knew everyone there was desperate for their attention, and being cats, they milked that for all it was worth. There was even a very sad looking one wearing a sweater which pretty much summed up the vibe of the place. It wasn't a natural environment for a cat and I regretted supporting such an establishment but my cat cravings were too much.

Later T.B.M.F and I went to the mall just for something to do. We wandered around but couldn't find anything particularly interesting so got some steamed buns and made our way home on the scooter as the rain stung our faces.

We spent the rest of the evening chatting about life and watching a TED talk. The next morning T.B.M.F had to head back to her village so we said our farewells. As I left her parting words were 'Go to India!'

Later that day I booked my tickets to Phuket and set in motion some plans to go to India in mid October. Every time I think of it I feel a little pang of excitement in my stomach so I know it must be the right decision.

The decision to go to Phuket was mainly to see the famous Maya Bay. This was the beach in the Leonardo DiCaprio film called 'The Beach.' I had been warned that it was incredibly touristy so I figured I would go in and out as fast as I could. It wasn't a very practical thing to do, location wise, but I knew if I didn't satisfy my curiosity I would regret it.

I also visited an interesting contemporary art gallery called The Black House on the scooter and then chilled in my dorm for the rest of the afternoon.

The next day I flew to Phuket. When I arrived I had a feeling I had made a mistake. It was very built up and the people seemed very fed up with tourists even though it was still low season. I took a gamble and bought a bus ticket to a part of the island called Patong. I had done zero research before I landed but when I arrived in Patong it was confirmed that this was not what I was looking for.

The streets were filled with sweaty sunburnt men in wife beaters holding beers and talking loudly in mostly Australian accents. There were sleezy looking massage parlours everywhere you looked and bars pumping loud obnoxious music into the streets.

I asked one man where a cheap quietish place to stay could be found. He gave me a weird look and replied "You want somewhere quiet?! Then don't stay anywhere around here." The way he said it made it clear I was very much in the wrong place. This was no place for sleeping. This was a place to leave your morals at the door and have fun at the expense of everything else.

I found a cheap hostel just off the main strip and chatted to two nice Australian girls who had just finished high school and were on their O.E. I was starving after a day of travel with no meal breaks so I headed down the road in search for food. Everything was really expensive and mostly western style resturants.

After a bite to eat I wanted to sit on the beach and soak in the sea air whilst reading a book. Even that wasn't as relaxing as I hoped. There were strange men who seemed to be either drunk or high wandering along the beach and women trying to sell package deals and rip off sunglasses. I stayed on the beach until dark appreciating the sound of the ocean after being landlocked for over four months. For an island dweller that's a long time to be away from the ocean!

I watched people wander along in their groups taking selfies and swinging their selfie sticks around to get the perfect angle. Later I went for a longer walk along the streets. I bought an ice cream from a street vendor and ate it sitting by myself on the dark beach again. I felt very disconnected like I had just arrived on an alien planet.

Eventually I ended up at a mall in the same family as the one we had in Ubon and decided to go in just for some sense of normality. I noticed the movie IT was playing in English at 9.40pm and thought why the heck not. I'd been dying to see it and there didn't seem to be anything else I wanted to do in Patong.

So I took myself off to the movies and it was the best decision I had made all day! It was one of the most enjoyable horror films I'd seen in a very long time and made me feel slightly more connected to people back home since all my friends had been talking about it.

Halfway through the film at a non - scary point a woman screamed and yelled "there's a rat in here!" Sure enough there was a big ol' rat running around the theatre. That set the scene perfectly for the film is shot mostly in sewers. It was a wonderful addition to the whole experience.

When IT finished an Australian couple and I got lost trying to find our way out of the mall after hours. By the time we made it out it had started to pour with rain. I had apparently walked further than I realised and it took me a good 40 minutes in torrential rain to get back to my hostel. Even though by this stage it was 12.40 in the morning there were still plenty of people around and tuk tuk drivers trying to tempt me into getting a ride. I stubbornly refused and squelched on past every single one of them much to their disbelief.

I finally made it back to the hostel completely saturated and wide awake to find everyone else fast asleep in the dorm. I had to quietly wring out my dress and hang it up dry before stealthily hopping into bed.

The following morning I had arranged to get a ferry to Koh Phi Phi Island where the beach from the film The Beach is located. That was really the main reason for coming after all and since I wasn't a fan of Patong I figured there was no point staying any longer than I had to.

I was filled with hope when I first stepped foot on Ko Phi Phi. For one there was no traffic and the beaches seemed nice and swimmable. However, the longer I stayed, the more that old alienated feeling began to creep over me. It was the same as Patong. People came here for two things, to get drunk and to forget their worries.

I found a dark, cheap little dorm and dropped my bags, before heading to the beach. There didn't seem to be much shade available but I found a tiny little tree and managed to fold myself into the smallest patch of shade known to man. It was quite comical really but I was desperate to avoid getting sunburnt.

I had fully intended on reading but the human activity was much more interesting. There was couple arguing as they walked along the beach.
I over-heard the man say to the woman "I wish you wouldn't bring this up now. I can't change that and we are supposed to be having a nice holiday."

It made me so curious about what he had done and very glad to not have to deal with those kinds of squabbles. It's better to be alone than with the wrong person after all.

It also seemed to sum up the whole vibe of the island. It looked very beautiful on the surface but the cracks were starting to show. The water was polluted, the beaches over crowded and even climbing up to the viewpoint cost money!

I climbed up anyway and found a semi-quiet spot to watch the sunset. It wasn't long before I was joined by, it must have been at least 70, other people and a couple sitting next to me who kept shouting "go pro! Take a photo!" instead of asking someone to take their picture. A person above me decided to let off their drone and it buzzed around like an oversized, very irritating, blow fly.

I perservered, gritting my teeth, and becoming more and more depressed with every selfie click I heard.

I did wonder if perhaps everyone was thinking the same thing though.

It's like we all knew we'd ruined it. The paradise that was once The Beach and everything it stood for has now become exactly what the community in the movie feared would happen. The bitter, bitter irony.

The man in the TED talk I watched with TBMF said the sickness of the west is because we've lost our connection with spirituality. I don't think he meant literally a god or a spirit but that calmness that comes with really knowing yourself. We as a society don't know ourselves or how to find happiness.

Koh Phi Phi is a hedonistic paradise. I'm usually all for hedonism as long as it doesn't negatively impact others or the environment but it seemed on this island it was fun over everything else. I've never felt more alienated and out of place than I did in Patong and Phi Phi.

Again I decided to just get in and get out. I booked a boat trip that would take me to see Maya Bay and then a ferry off the island to Krabi a few hours later. I didn't want to stay a minute longer than I had too.

I'd done a few of these boat snorkel trips before so I knew what to expect. The lady who sold me the boat ticket also warned me that it cost an extra 400 baht to even get off the boat at Maya Bay.

It would be fine if this was meant as a detterent to keep the beach cleaner and less crowded but it didn't seem to work. It just meant only rich people could drop their litter in the national park.

The rest of the people on our boat didn't get off either. We all sat in mildly annoyed silence for about an hour as we turned slowly green from the rocking of the boat. This was definitely the darkest timeline.

I stuck my head out the side of the boat and tried to imagine what the beach would be like with no people. Sometimes I just about succeeded but it was never long before I was snapped out of it by some rich people's carefree happy squeals from the beach or the roar of a motor as a new boatful of tourists arrived.

I watched a number of women parade themselves in bikinis whilst their husband's or boyfriends followed along trying to capture the perfect instagram shot. The pictures probably looked amazing when they cropped out all the other people but I knew the ugly truth behind them.

I felt bad for feeling so negative about the whole thing. I was at supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in world and all my thoughts were so bitter and unhealthy. Perhaps the problem was with me. Everyone else seemed to be having a great time. But couldn't they see what was happening?

We visited yet another monkey bay before Maya Bay. There must be 1000's called that across SE Asia. The lack of originality in the naming even started to annoy me. I'm sure it had a Thai name but the locals obviously thought the tourists didn't want or need to know it.

The driver brought us so close to the trees several of the monkeys leapt into the boat. The driver threw the biggest male one a bottle of orange cordial. He opened it with no problem as if he had done it 1000 times before (and I'm sure he had). When he was done he tossed the bottle aside and went looking for more food like a spoilt child. One little monkey found a bag of rubbish under a seat and proceeded to rip it open. When a lady went to stop it, it screeched angrily, and she gave up for fear of being bitten. The monkey then decided there was nothing good to eat anyway and tossed the bag into the ocean. Thankfully the driver had the sense to climb down and retrieve the rubbish.

It was difficult to enjoy the encounter when everything inside me was screaming "this should not be happening!" The monkeys were chewing on plastic, drinking sugary drinks and plastic bags, polystyrene and bottles bobbed along beside us in the clear, turquoise waters.

I wondered if anyone else was having as much trouble enjoying themselves as I was. Perhaps we were all secretly shocked but because we were all feeling lucky to be on holiday and out of our little offices we didn't want to complain out loud for fear of sounding ungrateful.

Weirdly this rubbish affected me on a deeper level than anything I've seen before including severe poverty. In India I felt like people were genuinely happy you were visiting the country but here I got the feeling the local people of Ko Phi Phi only tolerated the tourists because they relied on them for an income but they weren't blind to the impact it was having on their home and community.

Ko Phi Phi wasn't real Thailand. It's a strange global village where people come to be as vulgar and carefree as they want and then leave the locals to clean up the mess.

I was so tired from all the snorkelling and the sun I slept most of the ferry ride to Krabi. I woke up when we arrived feeling quite confused because time seemed to fly.

My ferry ticket included a bus ride to Krabi town and by this stage this was the perfect place for me. I was already very much in crabby town. However it was quite refreshing to be somewhere that felt like the same Thailand I had been living in for the last four months.

I hadn't booked anywhere to stay again and was wandering along the street when I saw a hostel advertising cheap rooms. They were even screening Season 7 of Game of Thrones. I was sold immediately! I got a room to myself for the price of a dorm which was bliss after several days of dorms.

I spent the next day in my room writing, doing laundry and booking my bus ticket to Koh Phangan which Super Chill Mumbai Guy reccomended.

I realised I was probably feeling so alienated because I hadn't had any meaningful human interaction for several days. Most of the interaction I had had involved some kind of monetary transaction. The majority of people I had spoken to were wanting to sell me something and I'm sure this was the reason for my crabbyness. Somehow deep down these interactions are not fulfilling and I'm convinced this is part of the reason capitalism can make us so unhappy.

Despite the negative feelings the last few days have evoked I believe that every experience, good or bad, serves a purpose and this experience will serve as motivation to be a tidier kiwi and to make cleaner, greener choices in the future. It would be truely awful if the paradise in our own back yard turned into the same kind of tacky tourist trap.

On the surface Koh Phi Phi looks like paradise but it's when you look a little closer the cracks begin to appear.

The White Temple, Chiang Rai

Another example of how pictures really don't speak 1000 words. Just down the beach a bar is blasting obnoxious music and sweaty, drunk men stumble around in the sun. Relaxing!

Friday, 15 September 2017

#29 Thailand part 8: A series of hellos and goodbyes.

I recently crossed paths with a man who told me that travel is the real world and working and living in one place is not.

I tend to think travelling is a magical inbetween time that stays with a person through the mundaneity of real life as a reminder that it doesn't always have to be that way. There is an escape if you are lucky enough to be born with the right passport.

I once thought it would be fun to travel long-term. Every time you got a bit bored you could move on and experience that rush of waking up in a city or town you know very little about. However, having met and said goodbye to a string of different people already in only seven short months, I'm not sure it really is a fulfilling way of living. I think it would be naive to want to travel alone forever.

Sure it can be amazing. You meet all kinds of people that you would never cross paths with if you stayed at home but equally each friendship is brief and hurried.

The relationships travellers form rarely have the chance to become deeper or meaningful but equally the tempoary nature of them makes them more intense. Each encounter is one stone in the pavement that makes up the whole path.

Even in the last week since I left Phibun Mangsahan I have already met and farewelled a number of people. In saying that - the ones I'm about to tell you about must have made enough of an impression on me to want to immortalise them in this blog.

Saying goodbye to LS was rough after seeing each other almost every day for four months. But we were lucky to have formed a friendship that meant enough for it to be painful to say goodbye to.

I took a night bus from Phibun Mangsahan to Bangkok which takes around 11-13 hours. I sincerely hope the more night busses you take the more character building it is because I really can't see any other advantages.

The seats were so uncomfortable and a woman nearby kept letting out the most astonished sneezes as if she couldn't quite believe her body would do that to her. I had to suppress my giggles and I missed having someone to laugh with. I knew LS would have found it funny too.

When we finally arrived in Bangkok the driver kindly delivered me as close to my hostel as he could. As soon as I arrived I was no longer tired and decided to head into the city to have a look around. It wasn't long before I had been engulfed in a sea of black clothed dedicated royalists visiting the grand palace. (Thai people wear black out of respect for the former king who died almost a year ago). It was quite a spectacle.

I managed to get swept along by a few Japanese tour groups to see where they were going. It turned out there was a tourist entry gate but to get into the actual palace cost 500 baht. I decided I wasn't that desperate so made my way back out again trying not to get my eyes poked out by a sea of sun umbrellas. It was only 10am and I'd already sweated through my shirt.

Next I visited the reclining buddah which I'd heard a lot about. It was impressively enormous. Somehow I then ended up walking to a pier and catching a boat across the river to see another temple. By this stage I was starting to get a little delirious from the heat and the lack of sleep so I'm not sure how much I really took in. All I remember was that the buddah in this temple was also very big and there was a big ugly car park in front of it. It was much older and more run down than any others I'd seen and truthfully I had  no idea why I was there or what the significance of this particular temple was.

I decided I'd had enough sight seeing for one day so I caught a taxi back to the hostel and slept until dinner time. Sadly the hostel was not in a very good area and the only food place within walking distance was 7/11. So I filled up on a very sad ham and cheese toasty and went to bed again.

The next morning I packed up and went in search of a more central hostel. I took a taxi to Khao San road and walked until I found the quieter back streets. This time I knew the price range of dorm I could expect and wouldn't settle for anything over 160 baht. Eventually I found a very modest looking hostel named, very originally, Place Inn. They offered dorms for 150 baht per night ($6).

When I was shown to the dorm I was already sweating profusely and had to change another shirt. It was only 10am again. I would have to spend half my budget on laundry at this rate.

I could hear someone snoring softly as I put my bag away and soon a shirtless man who had a striking resemblance to the laughing buddah appeared sitting by the window. He looked at me in surprise before taking himself off to the bathroom.

I then went in search for a taxi to take me to the floating markets which had been on my bucket list. The markets are about an hour and a half out of Bangkok and I managed to get a good deal on a taxi ride all the way there and back. Unfortunately I didn't realise they have a policy that means you cannot share a boat when you get there.

At first I didn't believe the taxi driver when he told me this. It just didn't seem right. However when we got there the woman selling the tickets insisted I had to pay for a whole boat for myself which was more than $80 NZD. She could see I was very close to asking the driver to take me back to Bangkok because I felt a little tricked into parting with an unexpectedly large sum of cash so she gave me a slight discount for a shorter ride and I decided I may as well just pay since we had come all this way.

After that little shock I was in a bad mood and didn't feel like buying anything else at the markets. So the poor boat driver had to drive me around as I shook my head at all the vendors trying to entice me in. It would have been nice to support the local economy but I really didn't need/want/have room in my bag for any souvenirs.

At one stage I got a glimpse of an enormous python that was being kept in a bag and taken out for photo opportunities and an adorable bush baby who was also being used for the same reason but both would have involved pushy people wanting me to pay to have a closer look. I kept a very neutral face as we slid past in the boat even though I was dying to see them.

So, having blown my budget for about a weeks worth of food and accomodation on my second day in Bangkok, I retreated with my tail between my legs and ate a very cheap meal of Pad Thai before retiring to the hostel to lick my wounds.

When I returned, Mr Laughing Buddah man was up and about, and came to sit on the bed across from me for a chat. He was interested in New Zealand and our politics and he told me he had been arrested twice for being involved with demonstrations against the government when he was younger. He struck me as a rarity in Thailand. He was most definitely an independent thinker which isn't something that is encouraged here from what I've seen so far. Some of my students couldn't even tell me their favourite colour because they were afraid it would be different to their classmates.

Mr Laughing Buddah had studied at two different universities and told me his father had given him the name Peetha which meant intelligence because he was afraid his son would grow up stupid. Mr Laughing Buddah man was a delight to chat with and we exchanged email addresses and he invited me to visit him in his home town if I was ever passing through.

I never did get a straight answer out of him about why he was staying in a very cheap dorm on Khao San Road at the age of 75. If I didn't have a hand drawn map in my Lonely Planet and a photo of the Thai words he told me to say to monkeys ("Ling, long" which supposedly means "Monkey, come down") I would wonder if I had imagined him.

The next day I wanted to see some modern art galleries but, as luck would have it, it was a Monday and many were closed. There was one open called the Jim Thompson house. I had never heard of this man before but I was intrigued when I read that one day he dissapeared without a trace when walking in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. They searched for his body for 10 years and found nothing. His house was beautifully preserved and contained many interesting pieces of art that he collected throughout his time in SE Asia.

After that short excursion I made my way back to my hostel and waited until it was time to catch a sleeper train to Chiang Mai.

It's safe to say I'm now a definite sleeper train convert. The beds are so comfortable and you are gently rocked to sleep by the train as it sways along the track. To make things even better you wake up in a brand new place and we were greeted by lush fields of rice and the misty mountains that surround Chiang Mai.

I hadn't booked anywhere to stay this time either because I figured it was so touristy it wouldn't take long to find a nice place. Luck was on my side that day and I wandered past a nice little backpackers with ridiculously cheap dorms. I was just setting down my bags when a friendly American girl struck up conversation and we spent the rest of the day together wandering around the temples and chilling in the park. We even got a fish foot spa which tickled almost unbearably!

That evening we met up with her Spanish friend who she had met at a mindfulness camp a few weeks earlier. They were both very passionate about meditation and invited me to join them for a talking circle that evening.

This involved each participant listing the highlight of their day and then answering one question designed to help travellers connect on a deeper level than the usual "where are you from, where are you going" conversation.

The Spanish man and I then had dinner together where the conversation was equally intense. Afterwards the American girl and I went to a Jazz bar for a while and then came home for an early night.

The next morning over breakfast the Spanish man told me about his interest in astrology and proceeded to make me an astrology chart. It did present me with some things that I hadn't considered problems before and left me with lots of things to think about.

When they left the hostel for their next destination I rented a push bike and decided to cycle to a waterfall they had visited on scooters the day before. The Spanish man told me it wasn't really a place one could cycle to as it was too far. Something in me wanted him to be wrong. I didn't want the things he told me regarding the astrology chart to be true either. So in a weird way that was the driving factor behind wanting to prove him wrong. So I did. At the expense of my body I might add. I cycled 23 kilometres there and 23 kilometres back on a rickety old push bike with no gears. I hadn't done any excercise for the past four months and several times I didn't think I would make it but a mixture of determination, stubbornness and curiosity prevailed.

The waterfall was in a national park and was made up of 10 levels. Even though my legs were dead when I arrived I still wanted to climb all the way to the top and I was surprised that my body let me. It really made me realise that the mind is the strongest muscle. It didn't matter that I was pushing my body harder than it wanted. My brain decided where it wanted to go and the legs had no choice but to follow.

I returned to the hostel that evening tired but very pleased I made it home in one piece.

Another American girl was staying in the dorm along with another older Spanish man. The second American girl had just finished a stint working in a refugee camp in France and was waiting until she could find a new camp to go to. She had some awful stories that almost brought tears to my eyes. She'd seen the best and worst of humanity in the one place. People that, out of desperation, had lost all sense of compassion whilst others gave everything they had for a chance at a better life for their families.

The next morning I took my time in deciding what to do. It's taking a while to realise that I don't have a schedule I need to stick to this time. The freedom is almost unsettling. I decided to catch a bus to Chiang Rai and see what all the fuss was about. It was surprisingly easy and I was on a bus by midday for the three hour long journey. Again I hadn't booked any where to stay and I decided I didn't want to take a tuk tuk either. I stubbornly refused all the drivers offers and headed off towards where I thought the main tourist strip would be.

I found a reasonably priced room and chilled there for a bit until my stomach was growling and I needed to find some dinner. After I found a place to eat I bumped into a Dutch man who had been on the same bus as me and we ended up going to the night bazaar together.

It turned out that he had some very interesting ideas about global politics and I soon discovered that he didn't agree with anything I said and I had a sneaky suspicion it was because I was younger than him and female. I did what I usually do in these situations and just played along for fun.

He gave me a whole history lesson and told me there's no point in voting because everyone in power is actually part of either the Freemasons or the illuminati even Jacinda Ardern! At this point I had to ask how that was possible since she was a woman and the Freemasons are only for men. He relpied that there are many different strands of these groups and they are all as bad as each other. It was a very interesting conversation and I learnt more about middle aged men and their feelings of superiority over young females than he will ever know. He also seemed to think he had the whole world figured out and was letting me in on a big secret.

I don't know if he realised that I was subtly taking the mickey by asking lots of questions disguised as childlike fascination. It's my favorite game to play with older men who have large egos.

The next morning I stayed in bed as long as possible. I was having trouble deciding exactly what to do next. It's all very well having no plans if you have a vague idea about where you want to go and people to discuss it with but when you are on your own it's sometimes difficult to decide on doing anything! I moved to a cheaper dorm and visited the Hilltribe museum to try to learn more about these mysterious people. It was very interesting and made me glad I didn't go on any treks in Chiang Mai to see the villages as tourism has almost ruined their culture. Some tribes are actually imported by businessmen for tourism from Myanmar. They are essentially human zoos and I decided I don't feel comfortable supporting that.

I spent the rest of the day laying on my bed in an empty dorm room trying to figure out a rough plan of action.

Sometimes I'm so grateful to have been born into a culture that encourages free thinking but on days like these I do wish I had someone to tell me what to do.

So the first week of being an unemployed, homeless traveller again passed by with string of brief but intense encounters. There were wise men and men who thought they were wise, a fair few kilometres travelled, a bruised behind and the excitement and trepidation that comes with a completely open schedule. Who knows what the next chapter will bring.

The famous reclining buddah, Bangkok.

Wat's that you say? Another wat? 

Mr Laughing Buddahs Thai notes for me - Place Inn, Bangkok.

Mae Sa waterfall, Chiang Mai.

Clock tower, Chiang Rai.