About Susie Hughes

Susie Hughes

Susie Hughes is a UK transplant to the United States, moving from London to Connecticut as a teenager. For five years she worked in technology public relations in San Francisco, quietly putting money away into "The Travel Fund". In May 2010, Susie left San Francisco to realize a lifelong dream of an extended trip around the world - seven months visiting more than 20 countries on four continents.


Latest Posts by Susie Hughes

Singapore, where I WASN’T a backpacker!

December 6, 2010 by  

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If you come across another backpacker who’s been to Singapore, he might tell you that it’s VERY expensive and there isn’t much to do…but that wasn’t the case for me. I got a fabulous break from the life of a backpacker thanks to some very generous friends and an extremely generous dad! (And actually, I reckon there’s lots to do there- museums, the zoo, etc., plus it’s super safe, very clean and there are no mosquitoes because of laws about standing water. Brilliant!)

I left Melaka on October 30th and hopped an afternoon bus to Singapore ($7 for a five-hour ride from one country to another- not bad!). As has happened to me before, I was dropped off at an entirely different place than what I’d been told. Singapore is so small and easy to get around however, that it was easy to hop a cab to Dan and Jen White’s apartment. Upon arrival, a bed sheet was thrust my way and I was informed our Halloween costumes would be togas- easy and fun.

Some have been surprised to learn that Halloween is indeed celebrated in Singapore. This has much to do with the massive ex-pat population, but there were many native Singaporeans dressed up as well- the sexy lady cop and dead sexy lady cop being the most popular costumes of the night. We went down to Clarke Quay, a central hub of bars, restaurants and shopping, and met up with a few of the Whites’ local friends. It was absolutely RAMMED with people down there, with lines out the door of every watering hole. We wandered through the crowd for a while, checking out some of the crazy costumes and looking for a decent place for a drink, and it wasn’t long before we were asked by some locals to be in a photo. No problem, we said. Oh, another one, sure. OK, one more. Oh, you’d like a photo too? Sure thing. Yep, you can have one too… aaaaaaand on it went! I estimate we were asked to be in about 100 photos that night, we couldn’t go a step without someone running up to us. I imagine it’s the closest I’ll ever come to knowing what it’s like to be famous. Sigh.

Eventually we settled on a place called Cuba Libre that had a live Latin band and we boogied there for a while before moving on. It was really hard to get into places, however, so we settled on grabbing a drink at an outside cafe and watching the millions of people in crazy outfits walk by. Later on, Dan ventured back into a club for a drink and Jen and I went back to Cuba Libre to get our dance on. We tired out after a while, and having no concept of time, decided it must be at least 3am and we should probably go home. We went wandering for a taxi (Singapore is ridiculously safe, even for two girls alone in togas) and eventually got in one, where we learned it was actually 4:30am!

As you might imagine, the following morning was not productive at all- in fact it was well into the afternoon before Jen and I ventured out of the apartment. She showed me around Little India (almost like the real thing!) and Arab Street, we had some henna painted on our hands and browsed in some adorable little boutiques. Later on we met Dan for a little snack and a sit down, and then it was time for me to get my stuff together to go and meet my dad, who had just arrived in Singapore on business.

I’m a super lucky girl, because my dad was staying at the Mandarin Oriental and was happy to have me to stay with him for three days. It’s a very posh hotel, and the folks behind the check-in desk seemed a bit surprised to see a smelly girl in dirty clothes, a backpack and flip-flops (they ask guests to refrain from casual footwear- ooh so sorry!) walk in. I’m pretty sure they thought I was in the wrong place at first, but they did in fact let me go up to the room where my dad was waiting. It was great to see him, as I’ve been missing my family loads, and after I was settled and changed into slightly less smelly clothes, we went down to one of the restaurants in the hotel for dinner, and then out for a wander around the city. I’m such a city girl- I often get more excited about huge, lit-up skylines than I do about gorgeous natural panoramas- so I insisted on stopping every few minutes to get some shots of Singapore’s brilliant skyline.

Afterward we went back to our room, as my dad was exhausted from jet lag having just arrived from London, and I was exhausted from Halloween-lag! Funny thing was, at about 2 or 3am, both my dad and I were wide awake, unable to sleep for various reasons, so we turned on all the lights, turned on the telly and just hung out for a few hours until he went out for a run and I went back to sleep. I said to him, “Daddy, I don’t know what other daughters do with their dads, but we hang out at 4am in Southeast Asian cities in fancy hotels. And I like it!”

Later that day, my dad was out doing businessy things, so I took myself to the hotel gym (damn this travel chubbiness…), then out for a bit of sightseeing and then to the fantastic hotel pool which has a brilliant view of the city. In the evening I went to the gym AGAIN (it’s true!) and then we went out for an Italian meal- it’s said that eating is the national sport in Singapore, you can literally get ANYTHING you want, anytime!- and then wandered back to the hotel and to one of the bars, where I had the MO Singapore- a lychee-flavored, overly sweet cocktail thing- before bed.

The next morning I went to the gym yet again (yes!) after a delicious buffet breakfast where I had to physically restrain myself not to eat every morsel of free (well, for me!) food! After that, Jen came over for a pool date and we thoroughly enjoyed the cold towels and fresh fruit brought to us as various intervals! Later in the afternoon, I went to the gym AGAIN (no, really!) and then got ready for dinner out with some of my dad’s work people and the Whites to celebrate my birthday early, as I was to be alone on my actual birthday two weeks later. Seven of us met up and went out to Din Tai Fung, an excellent Chinese food spot that’s actually a chain around Asia and has restaurants in NY, LA and Sydney as well- I highly recommend it for a group thing, delicious!

Afterward my dad, his work buddies (Richard and Ian) and I decided we would walk back to the Mandarin to burn off our dinner. I discovered that on the way, we would pass the famous Raffles hotel, home of the equally famous Long Bar. Somehow, I managed to wrangle the old folk (er, I mean, you know..) to join me for a Singapore Sling, the drink the bar is famous for and something one just HAS to try when in Singapore! It’s a bit of a cheesy place, the Long Bar, but fun to see, especially as the thing to do there is eat shelled peanuts and then just toss the shells on the floor. We were almost ankle-deep in these shells, I kid you not, and the addictive nature of these snacks is that the four of us managed to tear through the whole huge box of nuts on our table in about three minutes!

The next day my dad was out on business again, so I had a nice pool loungey day before saying goodbye to him in the afternoon when he left for Kuala Lumpur- thanks so much for the treat Daddy, it really was a fabulous few days!

In the evening I packed up the backpack (sigh) and hopped a taxi to my friend Tom’s apartment. Tom is a family/childhood friend that I’ve known for years and he’s lived in Singapore for ages, so it was brilliant to catch up. We went for dinner at the Singapore Cricket Club (ooh la la, I know!) and then met up with a few of his rugby team buddies and proceeded to get rowdy with them, first at a bar called Altitude- the highest in Singapore. It’s nine million stories off the ground or something and offers INCREDIBLE views of the city. Well, of the whole country really. Then it was back to Clarke Quay, of Halloween night fame, for a couple more drinks before we went back to Tom’s apartment, as he had to work the next day. Ah yes, I remember what that was like…

The following day while Tom was at work I took myself for a mosey about, sightseeing and visiting the Asian Cultures Museum. Later on, when Tom was back from rugby practice, we threw our gladrags on (well, I did my best with what I had in the backpack!) and went out with two of his friends to a VIP Johnnie Walker promotion party, thanks to his roommate who works in PR and represents the brand. I’m not a huge fan of whiskey, but I AM a huge fan of free drinks (well, I’m a fan of free ANYTHING at the moment) and I had a nice time meeting Tom’s friends and just being fancy for a bit! After the party we went down to Clarke Quay again to a club/bar place called China One- a super rowdy spot with a live cover band and a packed dancefloor full of revelers. Although it was Thursday, the following day was a public holiday, so hardly anyone had to work and the party went on ALL night. I don’t think we stumbled out of there until 4am-ish!

The next day (or should I say, later that day) was another of those unproductive ones owing to such a late bedtime! There was just enough time for brunch with Tom and one last catch-up before I had to pull the backpack together again and head back to the Whites for our trip to Bali.

Thanks to all who showed me such a fabulous time in Singapore- I’ll be back. But only if you’ll pay for everything.

Jokes.

Loving Every Piece of Malaysia

November 16, 2010 by  

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I began my journey in Pulau Penang <alaysia after taking a succession of mini-vans from Krabi. I left at 11am, but after waiting in long immigration lines and whatnot, I didn’t arrive in Georgetown (the city on Penang) until 9:30 that evening. I didn’t have anywhere to stay (I’ve stopped booking stuff in advance unless I’m arriving somewhere really late at night. I now prefer to just rock up and look around), but luckily the guest house someone had recommended to be had a room. Well, I suppose you could call it a room. Essentially, I was in a big room where the beds were separated by flimsy plastic wall things and doors to make single rooms- no window or anything. It had a fan but it was absolutely stifling in there! Still it was $6 a night, sooo…

The next morning I was pretty tired from a restless, sweaty night in my little cell, but I roused myself for a day of sightseeing. Georgetown is a really nice little place, and I went to the Penang museum (entry free approx. 33 cents) where I learned loads about the history of the area (settled by the Brits, you know, that old story). Basically a guy called Francis Light was the man back in 17 hundred and something, and you can’t turn a corner in Georgetown without running into something related to him. I then went to Fort Cornwallis (I mean, I gotta have some fort action pretty much everywhere I go now) and wandered around learning about how ol’ Francis kept things under control from there. Next I went for a walk through Little India (heaven!) and then down Armenian Street, which in addition to representing (surprise) Penang’s Armenian bit of history, also features some lovely temples.

I had a lovely day out with myself, seeing as I hadn’t actually been alone for a while. People ask me a lot what it’s like to travel alone and honestly, I’m rarely alone! It can be a bit boring on long bus journeys and things, but otherwise one has to try fairly hard NOT to meet people!

Anyway, that evening I went down the road from my hostel for dinner, where a local guy decided to sit down and chat to me. I’m always happy to meet locals and get the lay of the land, but this guy’s opening line was, “Wow, you look really tired,” so he sort of put me off! (Plus it was true, I was, and wasn’t reeeeeally in the mood for a chinwag!)

The following morning I set out for a hike up Penang Hill, which years ago was a sort of holiday retreat for wealthy Georgetonians. At the bottom of the hill are the botanical gardens, and I always like me a pretty flower or two. I asked a man there where I would start the hike up the hill and he laughed at me. “No no,” he said. “You should take a car.” “No no,” said I, “I want to walk.” “But it’s FIVE KILOMETRES!!!!” he said, incredulous. “Yep, I know, no problem.” He laughed again, but did eventually, in a state of disbelief, show me the way!

So, I set off. Aaaah, yes, I see the point about the car. It was RIDICULOUSLY steep and it was a VERY hot day! I was about three minutes in when I started to think, uuuuggghhhhhh! But I soldiered on, both desperate and absolutely dreading to see the mile markers that popped up every so often. I was just thinking that I MUST have walked a kilometre by now, when I came across the little blue ’0.4′ marker. Ack! But still I kept going. After a bit, I did actually really start to enjoy myself- it was very quiet and there was beautiful forest and/or jungle around me, plus it felt good to be getting some exercise (MIGHT have gained a travel pound or two or five- let’s not talk about it).

However, just as I was getting into a rhythm, I heard a sound from behind me and was blown away to see a local man, probably about 300 years old, positively SPRINTING up this massive hill! “Hello!” he said, cheerily. I huffed and puffed something in response and watched him continue on up. A little while later, I passed another older man sitting taking a break. “You go to top?” he asked, and I responded in the affirmative. “Ah, still long way to go!” Yes yes, thank you I know! About fifteen minutes later, however, I turned around to see the same guy had caught up with me! What is WITH these people?! We started chatting about where I’m from and how I’m enjoying Malaysia and whatnot, and he told me he does this walk up the hill three times a week. “I have to stay strong,” he said, “I’m dying.” Excuse-moi? Yes, the poor man has a kidney disease and is on dialysis half the time, but was absolutely (pardonnez le Francais) kicking my ass on this hill! I resolved to get in shape sharpish the moment I get home.

I parted ways with this lovely gentleman about halfway up when he stopped to rest again, and I kept on trucking until I got to the top. Phew! It actually only took me about two hours in the end (Lonely Planet said three so HA!), and I treated myself to a snack and an ice-cream at the top as I took in the lovely views of the island and looked around a temple. I then caught a lift down the hill with a couple from Kuwait on their honeymoon, and was chatting with the wife in the backseat in her full burqa, face covered and everything. I saw a lot of this in Egypt (Malaysia is also predominantly Muslim), but it was the first time I’d actually had a conversation with someone, face-to-face, yet had no clue what she looked like!

Once back at the hostel, I booked a trip leaving the next morning for the Perhentian islands, and was up at 5am for the bus. I had been warned that the weather might be bad as the monsoon was coming, but I was determined to check the islands out as I’d heard amazing things about them on my travels. After a four-hour bus ride and 35 minute speedboat ride, I arrived on Pulau Perhentian Kecil…and it was INCREDIBLE! The islands (two of them)are jungle islands surrounded by crystal clear bright blue water. The sun was out and there wasn’t a drop of monsoon in sight!

When the boat pulled up to the beach I waded through the surf with my luggage, and dumped my bag on the burning hot sand next to a girl sunbathing and asked if she’d watch it while I went to find a bed. I ended up finding a hostel dorm bed for $6 a night or so and booked in there. Once settled, I was into my bathing suit in a flash and out to the beach, where I napped and soaked up rays for the rest of the day.

The following day I met some fellow backpackers, and learned that the island was indeed shutting down for the monsoon season. It was actually a great time to be there though- the weather was still good and it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it can be in high season, when apparently people sleep on the beach because there’s no accommodation. In the afternoon I went out with a new Canadian friend, Andrew, on a little snorkeling trip where we swam around with sharks (just little ones!), giant sea turtles and stringrays. Very cool. Once back on the beach we met up with a few more folks and walked over together to the west side of the island to watch the sunset, eat dinner, grab some drinks and smoke some hookah! I ended up meeting a lovely girl from Holland, Mel, whose roommate was leaving the next day, so she wondered if I’d like to move into his spot in their hotel room. It was only a few more Ringgits a night to do that- plus we had our own bathroom- so I agreed to move in in the morning, and then spent the day beaching it!

The next day, things were really starting to shut down- half the restaurants on the island were closed so we were running out of places to eat- but there was still a good crew about. When Mel was done with her diving course for the day, we went for a little hike around the island and found some even more gorgeous beaches, totally deserted! In the evening we went to dinner with two crazy Austrian guys also staying at our hotel, and then to the ‘end of season’ party at one of the beach bars. We had planned to throw our own Full Moon party the following evening, but we all ended up being too wiped to do anything! The full moon was incredible though- it lit up the whole island like it was daytime. As I’ve always lived in our near cities, I don’t think I’ve really ever seen that before- beautiful.(Also, I have to say that I was much happier to be chilling on the Perhentians for the full moon than downing buckets in Thailand!)

After five nights on the island (I was only going to stay two or three, it’s that sort of place!), Mel and I left together for Kuala Lumpur where we would room together again for three nights. It was really nice to have a travel buddy on the nine-hour bus ride, plus she had been to KL before so took me straight to a really funky guest house where we split a room. Our first evening in KL we went shopping (me window, Mel actual) for counterfeit sunglasses and whatnot, then had the little fish eat our feet, followed by a visit to the local Reggae Bar (Southeast Asians looooove reggae for some reason- have seriously been to a bar called ‘Reggae Bar’ in every SE Asian country!) where we met some fellow travelers and even ran into a friend from the Perhentians- who used to work with a woman that I used to work with in San Francisco. Small world!

The next day Mel wanted to continue shopping for gifts, so I happily joined her for a wander around some of the massive shopping centers in downtown KL. I mean, these places were unreal- absolutely GIGANTIC. Some were 10 stories high, just jam-packed with shops. One even housed a full theme park. They were also all chock-a-block with people. I guess there’s not much to do in KL! Still, it was nice to look around and window shop, given my teeny tiny budget. (‘Oh, really Susie?’ I hear you- or my conscience- say…’What about the sandals, watch and two pairs of sunglasses you bought?’ Oh, er, well, those were so cheap it doesn’t count, or, something…)

On our last day in KL we did some more window shopping (for real, this time!) and in the evening went to the see the Petronas towers- those huge twin structures connected by a sky bridge. They look fantastic all lit up at night, and Mel and I got some good snaps before heading back to the hostel for bed.

The following morning Mel left early for China (still miss you girl- had so much fun!), and I got up later to catch the bus to Melaka. It’s only a two-hour ride so I got there in the mid-afternoon, found somewhere to sleep and had a rest, grabbed some dinner and then went to listen to a live cover band in a local bar. There I met Robin and John, two buddies from England travelling around Malaysia together for a couple of weeks. After a couple of beers with them, we made plans to go sightseeing the next day and I was to meet them at about 10 in the morning.

Melaka is a lovely little city- very easy to walk around with lots of cute little streets and shops. It’s had a long history of being ruled by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the Brits, then the Dutch again, etc. There’s a fort (phew!) and a lovely old church on top of a hill with great views, but what was really good fun was a visit to the ‘beauty museum’ which we stumbled across. It’s basically a detailed look at fashion and various beauty rituals from around the world: the corset, tattoos, those massive African lip plates, body piercing, etc. Very very interesting! We also went for a mosey along the river, where some university students were doing a canoe relay for 100 hours to break the record currently in the Malaysian Book of Records! We hollered at them (nicely!) for a while to cheer them on, and then sat down for a rest and a nutritious lunch of Pringles and fruit. The boys also wanted to stop for a cendol, a local treat of ice-cream, noodles, beans, shaved ice, green stuff, pink stuff, what-the-hell-is-that stuff…I wasn’t really a fan, but Robin and John loved these things! After that I persuaded them that they HAD to try to fish foot-eating thing, so I dragged them to a local spa. And yep, they loved it, plus I got to do it for the third time. Such fun!

In the evening we met back up for dinner at one of Melaka’s most famous restaurants, Capitol Satay. While waiting for a table we picked up another English guy and two English girls and we all sat together. Everyone sits around a metal table that has a big vat of burning hot oil and other stuff (it honestly looked like they put coffee grounds, washing powder and Ovaltine in there). Everyone chooses things on sticks to cook in it- it’s essentially Malaysian fondue! It was really good fun cooking everything up and then trying to figure out what I was actually eating as nothing was labeled. At the end, the waitress counts everyone skewers and you pay for as many as you had. I was stuffed for about $5! The new and improved gang then walked back to our hostel for some beers (purchased from the fridge in the living room of a 900-year-old Chinese man in his underwear- brilliant!) and to hang out with a group of crazy German travelers and swap wild SE Asian travel stories.

The following day I was back on my lonesome, but had a lovely day doing a little gift shopping and visiting some other sites. I popped into the Heeren House, an old Dutch shop/home that’s been renovated to look as it would have 200 years ago. I was the only visitor, and after a look around sat down with the gentleman who runs it- Colin. He must be about 70, has lived in Melaka his whole life and is an absolute history buff. I essentially got an hour-long, one-on-one history lesson from him. It was fantastic and I learned a ton.

In the evening I went with a girl from my hostel, Saima, to Jonker Street, just parallel to where we were staying. Every Thursday and Friday the street becomes a night market- all the stores bring goods out onto the streets and food hawkers set up lots of stalls of yummy stuff. We had a wander and Saima bought some gifts for her family, and after a snack of tornado potatoes (aaaamazing- basically a potato is sliced into a coil, pulled down a skewer and fried. YUM) we watched the famous ninja ‘coconut man’ break open a solid coconut with his index finger! And that was one crooked and messed up finger, lemme tell you! After that spectacle we wandered some more, ate some more and generally rambled about before heading back to our hostel. Saima was headed home to England after nine months of travelling, and I was bound for Singapore the next day, where I got an amazing break from this backpacking life!

A Little Too Much Pad Thai

November 14, 2010 by  

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Ah, pad thai, that most delicious of dishes, those most noodley of noodles… Well folks, let it be known: it IS possible to eat too much of this fabulous stuff! I literally had it for almost every meal for the two weeks I was in Thailand, and I MIGHT be OK if I never see it again!

I arrived in Bangkok from Mumbai very early in the morning and with no idea where I was going to stay. However, after India, Thailand seemed the very height of civilization- not a cow, goat or chicken in sight- and it was easy to get a cab and have the driver take me to the backpacker mecca of the Khao San Road. Once there, I stumbled about for a bit in an exhausted haze until I found a decent place called New Joe’s Guesthouse and promptly passed out.

After my nap, I roused myself for a walk down Khao San to find some food, drink, and hopefully some friends. I was successful in all areas, meeting some lovely fellas from London and a nice girl from somewhere in England and a bunch of her buddies. I had a nice time with them, but after some pad thai (surprise!) and a few Tiger beers, I was once again very weary and had to call it an early night.

The next morning I slept very late- I couldn’t figure out why I was SO tired, but I think now that I hadn’t realized just how exhausting India had been and I was getting over it! Once up, I had a late breakfast and a walk down the Khao San to find a new cheap bag. It’s an insane place, the Khao San Road. Absolutely jam-packed with bars, restaurants, hostels, massage parlors, 7-11s, people selling cheap clothes and hawking bootleg DVDs and electronics, taxi and rickshaw drivers shouting at every passing backpacker and so on. After spending all of $3 on a new cloth bag (which started to fall apart within 24 hours), I decided to take advantage of a ridiculously cheap manicure, pedicure and massage. It took two hours for all that and cost me a whopping $15. Brilliant.

In the evening I took myself out for dinner and a drink. On my way out I ran into Jade and Alan, the couple I had met at Benson’s homestay in India, and we made plans to meet up the next day as they were exhausted from their journey from Mumbai earlier that day. Out at the bar, I met up with the English girl and her friends again and went with them to a bar with a fantastic live cover band- it was amazing to hear local Thais singing classic tunes in English so well!

The next morning I went to meet Jade and Alan, but was either confused about the time or the place, as I couldn’t find them. Instead I went out for breakfast and then made plans to meet up with Faine, the girl from Sacramento that I met in Haridwar, India, just before the horrible sickness ordeal happened! I took the metro (clean, easy, no one staring at me!) to meet her in the centre of Bangkok and we went out for a fabulous meal at a local restaurant she had read about. We had all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff and it was great to be the only Westerners in the joint. We then went for a ramble around the famous night market, where every sort of counterfeit product is on offer, right down to fake Calvin Klein underwear! Next we hopped a cab back to Khao San for a few drinks, and met two guys from England, Henry and Adam, who were just starting an eight-month trip together. I hit up a local club with them after Faine went home, where I ran into my friends from the night before, and after same late-night pad thai (shocker!), called it a night.

The next day was again fairly uneventful- I was still quite tired from my travels a couple of days before and my recent late nights, plus the rain was torrential! I did manage to get the next legs of my trip planned- a bus to Chiang Mai for a trek, and then a flight down to Phuket to meet up with my buds Dan and Jen White, who have recently moved to Singapore from Cali.

That evening I went to bed quite early to catch up on some sleep, but alas my plans were foiled as when on the verge of slumber, the most almighty crash roused me from my bed! At first I thought someone was breaking into the room, but then I realized the sound was coming from the bathroom. I went and peeked round the door, only to see that the ENTIRE bathroom ceiling had caved in due to the rain. Thank God I hadn’t been sitting on the loo at the time, as I’d probably be dead or have a broken neck at least! Now wide awake, I took some photos of the destruction and walked down the five flights of stairs to the reception to show them what had happened. Luckily they were kind enough to give me another room just across the hall, but it meant moving all my stuff over in the middle of the night, upping the tiredness factor!

The next morning the rain was still crashing down, but I decided that I absolutely HAD to get out and do some sightseeing before my 6pm bus to Chiang Mai. I took a stroll down to the waterfront and found myself a small fort to look at, though fort expert that I now am, I was quite unimpressed! I then went to a lovely temple, where I learned that it was Buddha Day, or something, so all local cabs and rickshaws were half price. EVERY other person I came across on the street wanted me to know this, and were absolutely beside themselves with disbelief each time I explained that I actually preferred to walk. “But, taxi cheap today, miss. Special day, no expensive. You take taxi.” No, no thank you, I’d say, I like to walk, I’m trying to get exercise, and then I’d do what I’m sure is the international sign for exercise, the Running Man.

I rambled along some more, snapping pics of various temples and palaces, before it was time to go back to Khao San and hit 7-11 for some snacks. The clothes I’d been wearing all day were wet with both sweat and rain, and I did not want to sit for 12 hours on a bus in them, so I did the obvious thing- bought some baby wipes and new t-shirt, wiped myself down in a hotel bathroom, changed and threw the dirty t-shirt in the bin. Sorted.

I then went back to my guesthouse to wait for the bus, and there I met Scott from England. He was at the end of a year-long journey around the world, and being that we were both on a tight budget, we decided to split some accommodation together when we got to Chiang Mai.

The bus ride was fairly uneventful and we arrived in Chiang Mai at about 7am. We found a decent room where I slept for about four hours, and then Scott and I went to investigate the various trekking packages on offer. After a bit of research, we found a good two-day/one-night trek for about $40, so we booked that and then wandered around the city of Chiang Mai a bit. That evening we went out for dinner and a drink, and lo and behold, who should walk into the bar but Jade and Alan! Woo hoo! I was so happy because I thought I had lost them for good! They ended up getting on well with Scott and made plans with him for the full moon party (sorry folks, judge me if you want to but I just wasn’t interested in it!) and I was pleased to have introduced some new friends!

The next morning we were up early for our trek. We packed small backpacks and left our massive ones at the hotel, and then hopped in a van with the rest of our crew, which randomly included some people I’d met in Bangkok- a few of the English girl’s friends! Our first stop was an orchid farm, which was beautiful, followed by a visit to a snake farm, which was insane. These crazy old Thai dudes put on a show for us, and were literally kissing cobras and letting boa constrictors strangle them. Nutty! Afterwards we went to a local market where I bought a massive bag of delicious lychees for a dollar, and then we went to see a longneck hill tribe. These are the folks whose women stretch their necks out with gold rings- they add one each year. I later learned that their necks don’t actually stretch, but the rings push their shoulders and rib cages down, so they’re actually compressing their upper halves.

We then had lunch, after which we set off for the first part of the actual trek, a two and a half hour hike up to a hill village. It was quite a challenge in the heat, but was so worth it once we arrived in the village and could shower and relax. We stayed in a large wooden hut on stilts with incredible views. We had a lovely dinner of curry and rice, and then sat around in candlelight chatting, joking and hanging out. Everyone was exhausted from the hike, so it was fairly early when we all (about 16 of us) went into the big dorm room- just two long rows of mattresses on the floor, covered with mosquito nets- and went to sleep! It began to pour with rain, and we all dozed off with the sound of it hammering on the wooden roof- really lovely!

We all slept surprisingly well, and the next morning the group split as some people were doing two nights. Those of us that weren’t- including me, Scott, and two sisters from New York, Christina and Dina- set out for a two-hour hike to a beautiful waterfall where we had a swim in the freezing cold water, which felt great after our sweaty walk!

After drying off, we continued our hike to the elephant camp, where we had lunch and took an elephant ride. I actually didn’t enjoy this very much. The little seats on top of the elephant’s back were very uncomfortable, and I didn’t like the guys working at the camp hitting and poking the ellie to get him to walk. It was fun to feed him bananas though. Scott and mine’s elephant was a real muncher, and we called him Chubby Charlie because he wouldn’t go one step without a banana first!

Next it was time for white-water rafting, which I’ve never done. I was actually a bit scared, being that I’m so NOT a water person, but it was actually seriously good fun and real laugh. I WAS a bit afraid for my life as we bounced around massive rocks and sailed down sharp drops, but we survived and had a blast. Then we switched boats onto bamboo rafts, and I had a go at steering ours along.

After that, our trek was over, and once back on land I peeled off my disgusting clothes and threw them away. Yuck! We bussed it back to Chiang Mai, and I then set out for the airport for my flight to Phuket where I was to meet the Whites! It turned out that Christina and Dina were on the same flight, so I got to hang out with them for a while at the airport which was nice!

The flight was delayed, but I met up with Dan and Jen just after midnight, and we caught a shuttle bus to a hotel that Dan had booked just for the night, as our plan was to go to Ko Phi Phi. The hotel wheeled a spare bed into their room for me, and the next morning after breakfast we went down to the jetty to get the two-hour ferry to Ko Phi Phi. It’s the island where the movie “The Beach” was filmed, and it really is beautiful. It was also extremely badly damaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, though much has been rebuilt. Once we arrived we had lunch and took a long boat over to Long Beach, which is slightly more relaxed than the fairly rowdy Ko Phi Phi town. Dan and Jen chose a room, and I traipsed up and down the beach looking for a good deal. I ended up in the same place as them as it was the best value for money, and once we were all settled we met up and all got massages on the beach, followed by dinner and some drinks.

(A note on how I know Dan, in case this seems random: We used to work together at my first PR agency. He still works for the company, and was transferred by them to Singapore earlier this year, making travel in SE Asia very easy for him and his brilliant wife, Jen. This little jaunt in Thailand was not the last I saw of them!)

The next day after breakfast and some chilling on the beach, we hiked through the woods into town for lunch and a bit of shopping. Jen and I did the fish massage, where tiny little fish eat the dead skin off your feet! SUCH a weird and ticklish sensation at first, but you get used to it and it’s really funny to see hundreds of little fish sucking at your legs! That evening we each had another massage and then walked down Long Beach to find somewhere for dinner. We found a good place with decent music and some fire dancers- more on them later!

The following morning we got up early to see if we could go on a snorkeling trip, but it was too windy and so we had to postpone until the afternoon to see if the weather would improve. Luckily, it did, and at around 2pm we set off in a speed boat to visit some snorkeling spots and various beaches. One of our stops was Monkey Beach, where visitors can feed the monkeys snacks and things. They even drink Coke right from the bottle. It was amusing, if a bit sad, and I was enjoying it until I made the big mistake of sitting on the monkey swing! They are VERY territorial, apparently, and suddenly three monkeys attacked me from behind!

One gave me a nasty scratch on my shoulder which started to bleed. My first thought was, uh-oh, rabies! Even though I’m vaccinated, many times if someone is scratched or bitten by an animal, they need follow up shots. Nothing I could do at the time though, so we carried on with the trip. We visited a beautiful lagoon where the water was absolutely bright blue and clear, surrounded by huge limestone cliffs. Then we went to Maya Beach, which is ACTUALLY where ‘The Beach’ was filmed. It was fantastic and we hung out there for a while and paddled in the water and took some snaps. We had one more snorkeling stop before being dropped off in Ko Phi Phi town and hiking back to Long Beach. That evening we decided to go back to the restaurant with the fire dancers, and after dinner we went to sit close to them so we could see better. Um, probably a bad idea.

We met two other travelers from England, Steve and Chris, and while chatting with them, suddenly there was a wall of fire in front of my face and I screamed at the top of my lungs! I actually thought I was on fire. A second or so later, once I was oriented again, I looked down to see one of the firey batons at my feet and one of the fire dancer dudes running over to get it and mumbling a vague apology. It seems that the fire dancer let go of the baton, and it flew past Jenny, hit Dan on the head burning his face in two places and singeing his eyelashes, then flew to me and whacked me, burning my arm. Crazy! We managed to get a free whiskey (served in a wine glass?) out of it for Dan, but otherwise the proprietors of the bar seemed unfazed by this episode. Moral of the story: don’t hang out near rookie fire dancers- try to get some credentials or something!

The next day Dan and Jen got ready to leave, but first we stopped by the Ko Phi Phi hospital to get my monkey scratch checked on. They cleaned it properly and let me know that my vaccination from the US should still cover me, and not to worry. I asked what symptoms I should be looking out for, just in case, and the nurse said, “Headaches and confusion.” Oh, really? Because that’s me every day! Still, nothing serious has come up yet, so I think I’m all right!

After the Whites left, I spent the rest of the day moseying about and getting massages and things. I decided to stay two more nights, and the following couple of days were more of the same, except I couldn’t really hang on the beach because the weather was terrible. My next stop was Krabi, and after two days on Phi Phi I hopped on the ferry over- very bouncy and uncomfortable- and found a decent place to stay in the city. My plan had been to go from there to Rai Lay beach which is supposed to be incredible, but surprise surprise, the weather was too bad! I therefore spent two days in Krabi wandering around, getting some errands done, strolling along the river and resting up. It’s not a very exciting place- people really just stop off there on the way to other fantastic beaches and to go rock-climbing.

On my second day, however, I saw something very strange: it must have been some coming-of-age event or holy day or something, because walking along the street I suddenly heard lots of firecrackers, and looked up to see a parade coming towards me. Many of the people walking along, both men and women, had metal spikes, knives and barbed wire rammed through their cheeks on both sides, and were absolutely pouring out blood. Several of them looked so pale and wobbly they could barely walk. Others were running alongside them, pouring water on the wounds to wash away the blood. It was insane- I still haven’t been able to find out the purpose of this, and I was a bit shaken by it yet couldn’t tear my eyes away until they’d all walked past. I also had to take some photos, as it was such a bizarre scene I wanted some photographic evidence to help me explain it!

My second evening in Krabi I met three crazy English/Irish dudes, and ended up staying out way too late with them, drinking the ‘buckets’ that Thailand is famous for (basically disgusting cocktails served in, you guessed it, buckets!) and playing pool with crazy locals. This was repeated for a second night in a row, and then it was time to get out of there. As is the privilege of the solo traveler, I could decide exactly where I wanted to go next and when, so I made plans to head to Malaysia. The guy who owned my guesthouse, Rek, organized a cheap bus ticket for me to Pulau Penang, from whence I would begin two fabulous weeks in Malaysia. Really loved that place, so stay tuned for those adventures…

Namaste Mother India From the Bottom of My Humbled Heart

October 24, 2010 by  

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After recovering from an ailment, I hopped a SpiceJet flight down to Fort Cochin in the Indian state of Kerala. Wow, WHAT a difference from the north! It was just much…quieter. Don’t get me wrong – it was still India, and dodging cows and rickshaws or whatnot is all part of the game – but it wasn’t Delhi.

A driver was waiting for me at the airport to take me to Costa Gama Homestay run by Benson, an accountant, and his wife, who’s a teacher. What super lovely amazing people! They were extremely concerned about my health and wanted to make sure I was happy and comfortable and well fed.

Once checked in, they sent me downstairs to my room in the home of Trevor and Fiona, the couple who rent Benson the space to run the homestay. More lovely people. They too sat me down in the living room and brought tea and suggested all sorts of remedies for my lingering cough. After a nice chat with them I took myself out to supper down the road, and then promptly fell into bed for a good 12 hours.

The next day, I planned to do a bit sightseeing of Cochin, but alas the rain was torrential, so I had to sit inside and read- plus there was no way Trevor was letting me out in that weather, vigilant as he was about my recent illness! Eventually it eased off and I set off with a borrowed umbrella to see various churches and whatnot. There’s a huge Catholic influence in the south of India due to the arrival of the Portuguese to Goa in the 1500s. I had a lovely walk, including a peaceful rest in St. Francis church. Although raised Catholic, I’m not really sure where I stand on religion- my own or others- but I have to say that when one is feeling a bit lonely and/or homesick, something familiar can do wonders and, well, a church is a very familiar place to me! It was like a spiritual Starbucks!

After that I hauled myself to the Internet cafe for a much-needed blogging session and took myself out to supper again down the road from Costa Gama. Afterwards I had a chat with Benson about what he suggested I do next. He was very keen that I take a backwaters trip around the Kerala waterways so I planned that for the next day. I was up early for the shuttle bus, and we (about 20 people) were taken aboard a rice boat for a leisurely cruise around the canals. It was gorgeous and unbelieveably peaceful. The boat has no engine, so it just floats along, guided by a man with a stick. I promptly fell asleep, rocking to and fro’! We stopped along the way twice to learn about some of the cottage industries of the area- a limestone factory (I’m still vague on this, something to do with shells, not ACTUAL limestone?) and a coconut rope factory. By factory I mean, mud hut and one piece of makeshift machinery, but hey. We stopped one more time for a delicious lunch served on a banana leaf, and I had a lovely chat with two French girls on holiday for the week as they’re studying for a year in Delhi (may the force be with them!). Afterwards it was more floating, more napping, more picture-snapping.

I got up at five to catch my rickshaw to the bus station for the four-hour journey to the tea fields of Munnar. I was planning on the 6:30am luxury express bus. Yes, well. If ‘luxury’ means a bus with absolutely no suspension, crammed full of about 900 people and with no windows (well, there was no glass or anything), then yes, it was extremely luxurious. My goodness- by the time we were bouncing along the twisty mountain roads of Munnar, I was not only about to vomit on everyone, but I had to use ALL my body strength to stay in the seat and not fly out the window. I had to wedge a foot on each side of the bar under the seat in front so that I didn’t completely slide either into the aisle or through the window every time we turned, and I had to push upwards on the top bar of the seat in front so that I didn’t fly through the roof over every bump.

Munnar really was spectacular though- rolling hills and mountains of lush green tea plants in every direction. I found the guest house Benson had booked for me, run by a lovely guy called Deepak, and settled in for a rest after my early start. Later on I took myself out for lunch and a walk, and later out to supper where I met some nice Israelis who gave me tips on other parts of India, SE Asia etc.

At 6:30am Deepak knocked on my door to tell me the weather was good enough for the trek and to be ready by 7. Once downstairs I met my fellow trekkers- a German couple and an Irish guy and his Polish girlfriend. I was enjoying myself, when suddenly my ankle began to really sting. Figuring it was a bug bite, I looked down to see a massive leech sucking on my leg through my sock!

After the leech episode, we spotted three wild elephants until “it” struck — the monsoon. I though I’d seen the worst during ziplining in Jodhpur but none of us was prepared! Finally, the bumpy, windowless bus came to our rescue and we hopped on. But this was no ordinary bumpy windowless bus, friends, it was the Catholic Party Bus! Woo hoo! This was validated by three things: 1) the rockin’ Bollywood tunes blasting from the specially installed speakers; 2) the flashing red and green disco lights above the driver and 3) the massive picture of Our Lady looking over the passengers.

I arrived in Goa at noon the next day after almost 23 hours of traveling since leaving Munnar. I rickshawed to the bus stop to head down to the beach spot of Palolem where I had to avoid getting into conversations with Indian ladies who traipse up and down the beach trying to sell things. Every conversation begins with, “You have lovely skin, such lovely color, where you from?” and before long it’s “Come to my shop, I give good price.”

As I boarded my Air India flight at one o’clock in the morning (which didn’t let me down- flight attendants in sarees and ‘dinner’ served at 2:30am when everyone was asleep. I will be forever fascinated by the culture, the people, the food, the colors, the smells, and I ASSURE you, Mother India, I will come and see you again. From the very bottom of my most humbled heart, NAMASTE.

India Has A Burning Passion

September 28, 2010 by  

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India. Insanity. If we were playing a word association game currently, that’s how it would go. India blows my mind – what an incredible place!

I arrived in New Delhi in the afternoon of August 27th, wondering if I was completely insane and naive for attempting to travel alone in this country. As I contemplated this at the baggage claim and then at the currency exchange, I spotted another lone traveler, and decided that I had to talk to him- it would definitely up my confidence if I could make a friend before even leaving the airport. So, I accosted Steve (for ’twas his name) by a rubbish bin and introduced myself, and it makes sense to introduce him to you now because he’ll play a major role in the tales that follow! Steve is from the UK (Wales- woo hoo!) and is also doing a round-the-world trip.

He’s a structural engineer and has been living in Dubai for the past three years. I think that’s sufficient! Oh, he’s also an awesome dude and now a great friend! Delhi was his first stop where he was visiting a friend, but had aspirations to do some travelling around the state of Rajasthan, as did I. We chatted for a bit and exchanged contact info with a plan to get in touch once we were settled.

After our chat I was collected by a driver from my hotel in Delhi who drove me into the city. Delhi is completely crazy- millions of people and cows and cars and bikes and rickshaws and God knows what else all over the streets, tons of construction going on for the upcoming Commonwealth Games and HOT. So hot. And wet. I arrived in the area of Paharganj and walked over mud and bricks and plywood to get to the door of my hotel. I was nervous about what I would find inside, but it was actually a nice, clean comfortable place. I decided to lie down for a nap as I was exhausted from my travels…and promptly fell asleep for three hours. When I woke up around 8, I couldn’t drag myself out to eat so I ordered from a local restaurant and ate in the room before passing out again.

The next morning I was feeling much refreshed, and took myself out for breakfast where I met two lovely Israeli girls who gave me the lay of the land- including a tip on where to get custom-made jeans for $8! I spent some time wandering around with them, before taking myself to Connaught Place on the subway with a plan to visit the National Museum. Connaught Place is also a mess thanks to construction, so as I was standing on the side of the road trying to figure out, ultimately, where the hell I was, a young Indian gentleman standing near me made a comment about the traffic in perfect English. I asked him where I could find the museum, and a conversation ensued about where I’m from, why I’m in India, etc.

The guy’s name was Sani and he was a 27-year-old student studying at the University of New Delhi. He then asked if he could take me to tea. Now, usually my sensible girl instincts would caution me NOT to follow a strange gentleman to tea, but my gut told me this would be fine, plus it was the middle of the day and there were loads of people about, not to mention that this guy was a goldmine of info about Rajasthan, so I said yes. He took me round the corner to an absolutely packed fast-food joint crammed with people having lunch and bought me some tea.

We then had a great chat about where to go and what to do in Rajasthan, and he offered to take me to a government tourist office to book a tour. I hadn’t yet heard from Steve, so I went with Sani to the tourist office where he helped me negotiate a decent price for a nine-day tour of Rajasthan with a driver. It was a bit out of my budget, but I decided that as I was new to India and a woman traveling alone, it was probably worth to spend a bit more. I was pleased with the plan and was to leave on Monday (it was Saturday) after a day of sightseeing in Delhi on Sunday.

After booking the tour I wondered around a bit more with Sani, but was again feeling quite weary so took leave of him to go back and chill at the hotel. Of course as soon as I got back I got a message from Steve wanting to chat about possible travel plans! I told him about the tour though, and he sounded interested, so we decided to chat about it further the next day. That evening I took myself out for supper, where I met another nice English guy, Hamish, with whom I chatted for a while over Kingfisher beers. Travelling alone was going well so far!

The next morning I was picked up at 8am by the driver, Sunil, who would not only show me around Delhi but also be with me for the next nine days in Rajasthan. It was another boiling hot day and we began with a visit to the Red Fort. It was quite nice to wander around in the early morning with not too many tourists about. After that I visited the largest mosque in the world and was given some polyester things to cover my head and legs with which made me sweat so much that I had to leave after five minutes- phew!

Following that was a visit to the Gandhi memorial constructed on the site where he was shot, then a trip to the Lotus temple. It’s very modern and looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House. It was lovely and quiet inside- very peaceful after the chaos of Delhi outside, so I sat for about 25 minutes and just watched the world go by. It was also air-conditioned. Bonus.

After a spot of lunch we stopped by the Utab tower, but I wasn’t inclined to pay the entrance fee to climb it so I just snapped some pictures from the ground and then we went to the house Gandhi was living in when he died. There is also the course of Gandhi’s life displayed by miniature waxwork figures in little glass cases, which I adored because I LOVE mini stuff, as you know, and also because I learned a lot!

Next stop was the house of former prime minister Indira Gandhi who was India’s first and only lady prime minister in the 60s and 70s. This was also fabulous and extremely educational. I loved learning about her family life (her son Rajiv became prime minister later on) and her influence on India. She was assassinated in 1984 as she walked in her garden, and there’s a glass walkway on the lawn where she took her last steps, with a frosted glass panel where she actually fell. It was quite moving and I spent ages wandering around and reading every little bit of information.

We finished with a visit to the India Gate, a massive arch a bit like l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and when the sightseeing was over, Sunil took me to the tourist office so I could finalize the details for my tour, and also chat to them about getting Steve involved. I gave him a ring and he and his friend Emily (who has been living and working in Delhi for about two years) met me there.

We put on an act about how we’d known each other for years, and after some fairly intense bargaining, Steve decided he did want to join me, so he paid up while we both secretly hoped we wouldn’t hate each other! I then joined Steve and Emily for tea at the incredibly posh Imperial Hotel, after which we parted ways with a plan for me and Sunil to pick Steve up at 8am the next morning from Emily’s place.

Sunil was right on time the next day, though he had absolutely no idea how to find Emily’s flat. After stopping to ask approximately every single person in Delhi for directions, we found Steve and set off for the fairly long drive to Jaipur. Steve and I spent the drive chatting and getting to know each other, finding we had quite a lot in common – you know, drinking, dancing, sleeping late, eating bread. This is going to be fine, I thought. I made an interesting cultural observation quite early on, that now Steve was with me, Sunil deferred every thing to him. “Mr. Steve, are you hungry?”, “Mr. Steve, you are tired? You sleep well?” etc. No mind was ever paid to Miss Susie now there was a man on the scene!

We arrived in Jaipur in the mid-afternoon and checked into our hotel, spent a bit of time getting oriented on the computer and then set out into the city with a plan to go and see a Bollywood film. A tuk-tuk dropped us by the movie theatre, and we bought tickets to a late showing of a film called ‘Lafangey Parindey’. Anticipating a film full of crazy Bollywood singing and dancing, we decided there was only one thing to do to prepare- get drunk. Using our trusty Lonely Planet (aka, The Bible) and a not-so trusty puppet-seller boy who followed us around for about 20 minutes, we found a bar with a decent view of the city and promptly put away a (disgusting) bottle of Indian red wine.

e then set off for dinner nearby, where we thought it would be a good idea to drink another one, so by the time we got into the movie theatre we were  hammered. The movie began (all in Hindi), and was luckily a basic enough storyline that we could follow what was going on despite being trollied and not understanding the language: a boxing champ, One-Shot Nandu, runs over a beautiful local roller-skater girl, Pinky, and blinds her. But, Pinky doesn’t know it was Nandu that hit her. He feels SO guilty, that he lets her teach him how to rollerskate, and they end up on “India’s Got Talent” and do fantastically well. They’re falling in love, and eventually he feels he MUST tell her the truth. And he does and it’s all fine, she forgives him. Aaah, bless. Downside to this film? NO crazy Bollywood singing and dancing! It was actually somewhat depressing at some points. Still, it was an experience, and we had a lovely chat with two Australian girls sitting behind us. Perhaps they weren’t Australian. I can’t say I remember.

The next morning we were up early to meet a guide to visit the Amber Fort, the first of many, many forts we would see in Rajasthan! Our guide’s name was Pradeep, and as he told us the history of the fort, he began every sentence with “In olden times..”, in case we thought it was recently that the maharaja’s army had invaded a neighboring city, or something. He did give us some good tidbits though, like how the queen’s clothes and jewelry weighed so much that she had to be rolled around the castle in a wheelbarrow. Sounds like the life if you ask me.

After the fort we visited the lake and a gem-cutting shop, and then went to see the astrological observatory where we looked at sundials and signs of the Zodiac and whatnot. Then we had a wander around the city palace (again, one of many we would see), and visited an art center where a local artist drew us a gorgeous picture of an elephant and wrote a sentiment wishing all our days to be happy days! Brilliant. Not for him though, we didn’t buy anything!

With that, sightseeing was over, so we grabbed some lunch and decided a nap was in order. In the evening, we went back to the Amber Fort for the sound and light show, which was rather bizarre and we didn’t really catch what was going on, but the fort did look incredible all lit up at night. Sunil then dropped us back in the middle of the city and we found a restaurant recommended by the bible for dinner. It was a great spot full of other backpackers and things, and we enjoyed a few beers up on the roof where we had an excellent view of the city.

As always, it was a mission to get back to the hotel- it can be a nightmare trying to explain to a tuk-tuk driver where one is trying to go, and they can’t read maps because they never look at maps of their own city. Eventually we got in with a man and his son, and it was seriously the bumpiest tuk-tuk ride in the world. The little boy squealed with delight every time I squealed when we went over potholes that I think the driver was purposely going into. It felt like we’d gone several rounds at the gym when we got out!

The next morning we left early to drive to Udaipur, and on the way stopped off at another fort, Chittorgarh. We began by climbing a huge nine-storey tower with great views of the surrounding area. Thing is, there was a big religious festival going on- Krishna’s birthday- so about 900 other people were also climbing the seriously windy and narrow stairs to the top!

It was rather precarious, but it was worth the trip, and afterwards we did some wandering around of the temples and things. An Indian guy started talking to us, demanding to know if we were married (we began to just say yes after a while, saved us some hassle) and then told us another gentleman nearby was the king of the area. Really? Ok. We then proceeded to be in about ten photos with these folks- God knows what they tell their friends about who we are!

We arrived in Udaipur in the evening and were staying at a nice hotel right by the beautiful lake. We got changed to go out for dinner and set out in our backpacker finery, only for Steve to immediately step in a massive pile of cow shit (HOLY shit, mind you, given how the cow is revered in India) in his flip-flops. I drew more attention to this spectacle by laughing so hard I was crying, so we had to go back to the hotel for a holy foot-washing before trying again. We took another of the bible’s recommendations and found a nice little restaurant where we could also smoke some hookah. We had a nice time practicing our smoke rings (both are terrible at it) and went back to the hotel around midnight, only to find it all locked up. Apparently the doors close at 11 (thanks for telling us), so we had to hammer on the door and shout until a sleepy shirtless guy came and let us in. Oops!

The next day was a brilliant day. Probably the best of our whole jaunt. Not having to meet a guide or anything, we were able to sleep in and after breakfast set out for the city palace. Udaipur is a very easy little city to walk around it, and much quieter than many other Indian cities. It feels vaguely European- lots of little windy streets and things. On the way we passed a big temple where the celebration of Krishna’s birthday continued, so we went in. It was fantastic! Packed with people singing and dancing and clapping and just generally reveling.

We were immediately pulled into the fray, and were even encouraged to dance in the middle of the floor in front of about 400 Indians, but we managed not to! We payed our respects to Krishna, and just had an excellent time taking it all in and feeling so lucky to be part of something like it. Eventually we tore ourselves away for a walk around the city palace museum, and then went for lunch and to get organized before meeting Sunil for some more sightseeing. He took us to a really pretty park where we wandered around and looked at exotic flowers and things AND..best part..dressed up like a maharaja (Steve) and a maharani (me) for a photo op! We were charged extortionately for this, but the result was hilarious. They need to be scanned in somewhere (Steve, you are on this I trust!), and hopefully I’ll be able to share them soon.

Then Sunil took us to the other end of the city palace where we could catch a boat to Jagmandir Island. The island is basically a hotel in the middle of the lake (there are two- James Bond’s Octopussy was filmed at the other. More on that later) with lovely views back to Udaipur. We had a bottle of wine there and just enjoyed the atmosphere, before taking a boat back to meet Sunil.

The plan was to go to see the sunset at the Monsoon Palace, but we had taken too long with our wine, so instead Sunil took us to the other side of the lake where we could find a nice restaurant. Before that though, we stopped at one of the many bars that plays Octopussy every night. It was good fun to watch it and recognize some of the places in the city. The proprietor of the bar told us he’s been playing the film every night for eleven years! I don’t know he could stand it- those films are terribly cheesy! Afterwards we had some dinner, and called it a night.

The next day we set off around 10am for Jodhpur. On the way we stopped at another fort, Kumbalgarh, and walked around for an hour or so to get a break from the long drive and have some lunch. Many Indian tourists were interested in us and wanted to take photos, as usual, and this time we took some photos of them. I was in a picture with about 14 cheerful Indian men, who were VERY pleased to get so close to Steve’s “wife”! We made another stop before we reached Jodhpur, at Ranakpur, where there are a couple of famous temples.

There were some beautiful carvings and things to look at, so we moseyed around there for about an hour or so, watching baboons raid someone’s motorcycle for food at one point and trying to have a conversation with an old man in Hindi, before finishing the trip to Jodhpur. We arrived quite late, and managed to get ourselves out for dinner before calling it a night after our busy day.

Oh man, it was HOT in Jodhpur. Hotter than it had been anywhere else, and after breakfast we walked, dodging cows, motorbikes and tuk-tuks as per usual (I can’t over exaggerate the number of cows roaming the streets in India) UPhill to the fort. Phew. We were drenched by the time we reached the top. We did the audio tour (which was very good, almost as good as Alcatraz), took more photos with Indian families and investigated a ziplining course around the fort (more on that to come). We then walked back down to the market square for a refreshing lassi (one of the greatest things about India, after the chai!) and back to the hotel for lunch and to meet Sunil to visit the palace of the current maharaja of Jodhpur. Eh, I’d seen better palaces by now!

In the evening we did a quick Internet catch up and went for dinner at a great restaurant on top of the walls of the fort. It started to monsoon on us a bit, but we still managed to finish our meal outside and look at the great views of the city at night, while listening to a sitar player play Christmas carols, we think. The real fun in the rain would happen the next day, however…

We were to drive to Pushkar the next day, but first decided that we would go ziplining around the fort, so we set off there for the third time and suited up to do a six-line course. It started to rain just as we got going, but we thought, ah well, a little rain never killed anyone. No, a little rain never killed anyone, but a monsoon almost killed us and ruined a perfectly good camera (Steve’s). It was pretty incredible and very exhilarating to go ziplining around an ancient Indian fort in the pouring.

What wasn’t so fun was getting back in the car in our totally soaked clothes afterwards! Oh and it was to get worse. We set off for Pushkar in this terrible weather, driving through puddles (more like ponds) in the middle of the street. At one point Sunil went too fast through a massive puddle and the car broke down. Yikes. Much honking and shouting ensued, and Sunil had to pay a few (adorable) street kids to help him push the car to the side of the road.

After all that, we got to Pushkar in the very late afternoon, and didn’t do much except hit up an “Italian” restaurant for dinner. It wasn’t too bad actually- sometimes one needs a break from Indian food, so a pizza was just the ticket!

The next day we were headed straight to Agra, so we were up early to go and see Pushkar’s famous Brahma temple. On the way we stopped to look at the holy lake, and were immediately accosted by two men claiming to be priests. Before we knew what was happening, we were separated and were each standing by the lake with a priest, coconut in hand, repeating the words to some prayer about good health and life to our families. I really liked the sentiment- of course I wish those things for my family- but all I could think was how much this guy was going to want me to pay him. Downside of India- EVERYONE’S after your money, and it can take away from an experience like that that should have been quite meaningful.

Sure enough, after sending out blessings to my family and whatnot, the priest said I could pay what I want, but preferably one or two hundred rupees. Now this is two or four dollars, not outside my budget, but it’s the principal of the thing! And they won’t let you escape either! I threw 100 rupees at the “priest” and high-tailed it back to the road, just put off in general. We got to the temple and learned that we couldn’t go in together because I had a bag with me and wasn’t allowed to take it in, so we’d have to split up so one of us could stay with the bag. Eh, we thought, there were around a million billion people around and if we lost each other we’d never be able to meet up again, so we scrapped the Brahma temple and cow-dodged our back to Sunil and the relative safety of his little car!

We set off for Agra, and on the way stopped off at, guess what, another fort! It’s an abandoned castle called Fakhpur Sikri which is also right next door to a huge mosque where the end of Ramadan was being celebrated. We had a wander around (barefoot- ugh. Have I mentioned you have to do a lot barefoot in India? Have I mentioned India, though incredible and beautiful, is not the cleanest place in the world?) and then went to look at the fort where we were accosted by a guide who INSISTED on showing us around. Sigh, ok. He actually had some good info though, and gave us a clue about what we were looking at.

In the early evening we arrived in Agra, and after freshening up decided to treat ourselves to a drink at the bar of the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel, supposedly the best hotel in India. It was baked in gold and shiny marble. A night there costs hundreds and hundreds (of dollars, not rupees!).

We met our guide at about 5:30 in the morning, and he bought us our tickets and took us to the entrance gate. At 6am we were able to go in…and it was incredible. You can’t over-hype the Taj Mahal. It’s just beautiful, and the story of why it was built- for the king’s wife after she died giving birth because he loved her so much- is just heartbreaking. I was still a bit sleepy and felt like I was in a bit of a dream world. I was, actually. It was a dream come true just to be seeing it.

We headed to Rishikesh in the morning for some yoga. We parted ways at about 6am the next day, sad to say goodbye! We took a massive gamble travelling together for so long having known each other for, well, we didn’t know each other, but I now have a great new friend and travel buddy. Mr. Steve, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- thanks for making our little journey such fun and for being my friend. It was a real treat to get to know you, and I really hope we’ll meet again somewhere in the world, some day! Namaste.

When we arrived, we went to sit at a chill cafe by the Ganges river, where we lounged on floor pillows, ate lunch, read “the bible” and took naps. Nearby to our guest house there was another one called Mama’s Mountain Cottage, or something, run by the sweetest, most lovely old Indian lady, known only as Mama! If you let her know early in the day, she’ll cook up a thali for dinner for only 50 rupees (about a buck), so after yoga we went to see her for dinner. It was starting to rain (the monsoon was very much on in Rishikesh), so she invited us into her living room and five of us (me and the girls, an Austrian guy and a Danish girl) sat with her family and had an incredible dinner. Mama was very keen to make sure we’d eaten enough (we had, I almost exploded), and it was, I must say, brilliant to have a warm home-cooked dinner in a cozy house while the rain came town outside!

Mauritius: Crocs & Tortoise With Your Mother

September 12, 2010 by  

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We boarded our flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar where we had to wait three hours in a scrubby little airport for a connecting flight to the island of Nosy Be, which is more of a holiday place. While waiting, it dawned on us that we didn’t know how we were going to get to the hotel from the airport, so we gave them a ring. I went on this trip with my mother, yes, my mother. She was able to see that the dollars on a French degree had actually been well spent! Whoever answered the phone at the hotel didn’t speak English, so a taxi ride later, a long drive through windy island roads, we arrived at the Loharano hotel, which was absolutely beautiful! Small villas set around a picturesque pool- tres glamorous!

After four days we moved on to Mauritius, a beautiful island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where things picked up considerably! We stayed at a little place called Les Lanteniers Bleus run by owner Josette in an area called Riviere Noire. It was originally her house, so it has an incredibly cozy feel and is situated right on its own private beach.

We ventured out to see a geological formation, the Seven Colors of the Earth, which is basically different colored rock and soil caused by metal oxide deposits. In the same place was an enclosure with a few giant tortoises which we were very excited about, but little did we know we would have many more giant tortoise-related adventures that day….all day.

There’s also a beautiful waterfall, a huge gorge with lovely views to the sea, a Hindu temple, the giant statue of the goddess Shiva (my first taste of something I have come to know well in India!), and then the best part… the crocodile park!

The crocodile park is basically a small zoo with lots of crocs, some bats, warthogs, monkeys, and other various creatures. It also has giant tortoises – HUNDREDS of them – and people are allowed to feed them, pet them, and RIDE them! You can also do day boat trips to see dolphins, go snorkelling, and swim.  After a day out, I recommend heading off to Big Willy’s!

Travel By Numbers and Other Musings

August 25, 2010 by  

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I can hardly believe it, but three months ago today I arrived at my first destination – Vienna, Austria. I therefore feel it’s time for an update on the trip overall that’s less about what I’m getting up to day-to-day but how this whole thing is panning out!

Plane rides: 16
Train rides: 11
Boat/ferry rides: 11
Airlines flown: 10
Books read (not including travel guides!): 12
Mosquito bites (cumulative): 40 plus, easily!
Longest time without a shower: 3 days
Family members travelled with: 2
Times I have said I’m Canadian: Several
UNESCO sites visited: 14 (I thought I was doing great here…until I found out there are 897 more to see)
Dollars spent: About $4,500
Biggest local currency exchange rate to the dollar: $1 = 2080 Madagascar Ariary

-Carrying my entire life on my back has made me realize how little the average person needs to get by. However, even though I only ever have a maximum of three outfits to choose from, I still manage to agonize for far too long about what to wear. How did I make it to work every day with my entire wardrobe available to me each morning?

-There’s something about traveling that makes travelers feel compelled to have seriously deep conversations with one another and spill their deepest and darkest within moments of meeting. I suppose it’s a ‘ships that pass in the night,’ sort of thing, or strangers on a train. Then we remember about Facebook…

-I am not yet liberated enough to let go of my eyeliner, and I miss my high heels and my Marc Jacobs bag. There, I said it.

-If you don’t know how to drive a stick shift car (which I don’t), learn. It’s often all that’s available overseas and is much cheaper than hiring an automatic anyway.

-Toilet paper, baby wipes and plastic bags are sacred.

-Patience, patience, patience. I don’t know why it takes four people half an hour to examine my passport, or why taxi drivers just pull over to have a chat with their mates when I’m paying them to get somewhere, but these things are the gateways to all the things I want to do and see, so I must just chill out, max out, relax all cool…and wait.

-I appreciate even more how lucky I am to be both British and American and the opportunities that affords me.

-Sometimes, out of nowhere (like, when I’m buying soap or something), I miss home (both my homes, East and West) and all the people that I love and I get all teary. Then I remember I wouldn’t be here without them and feel so lucky. Then I get panicked about having to go home at all- what am I going to do with my life?! Then I remember that I MUST live in the moment. Then, after this roller coaster of emotions, I pick out the soap and move on.

-Sometimes time flies and sometimes the minutes seem to go on forever, but it goes just the same and it’s all I can do to just BE!

South Africa: Coffee Bay to Cape Town

August 23, 2010 by  

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An early start in Durban and a nine-hour Baz Bus trip or something got us to Coffee Bay on August 4. I’ll say again that I love the Baz Bus, but it only stops at gas stations along the way, all of which feature a branch of the South African fast food restaurant Steers. For some reason, every time it stops, most people feel compelled to grab something from Steers and then visit the shop, you know, just in case. For me this meant FAR too many French fries and if, in South Africa, you are in the hellish throes of a Kit-Kat shortage currently, I must own up and say that it was I who consumed every last one of those delectable treats.

In Coffee Bay we were booked in at the Coffee Shack, which is the place to be in the area. Coffee Bay is on South Africa’s Wild Coast (or the Transkei), and is so named because in 18 hundred and something a ship carrying coffee beans ran aground there, spilling, um, all the beans! After some welcome drinks and before dinner, we watched a few of the local girls perform a traditional dance for us, which was a great introduction to the local culture that I actually came to know rather well by the end of our three days!

After dinner it was a fairly standard evening of getting to know folks and making new friends, enhanced by a lively game of “killah” pool. Everyone plays, and the only rule is to pot a ball, any ball, and save yourself a life. If you win the whole thing, you get a free day out or a free cocktail. Knowing how incredibly coordinated I am NOT, you can imagine that I didn’t even come close to winning, but I did improve my pool skills overall in South Africa- they seriously love that game!

The next morning after breakfast we set off on a hike to the Mapuzi cliffs and caves. After a long walk we were promised a dip in the natural Jacuzzi. Brill, I thought, my back has been killing me! Well, be warned! This little rock pool cave thing might be Jacuzzi shaped, but it is NOT Jacuzzi temperature! False advertising! I couldn’t even get to my waist. Still, we kept on hiking through caves and things, and on our walk back stopped at a local village coming-of-age ceremony for two local boys.

They had just returned from two months away, after being circumcised and then sent out into the forest to live off the land. Their return thus confirmed that they are now men and able to get married and so on. The people in the area are the Xhosa people – Nelson Mandela is from there – and our guide Silas grew up there and knows everyone around. He said it was no problem for us to join the party, so we sat down with a few of the mamas (or, the ganja grannies, as all of them were totally high) and the children swarmed us! They were totally adorable, wanting photos of themselves and things. About four little girls were absolutely entranced by my hair and for twenty minutes they stroked it, pulled it, put it up in ponytails. The mamas also passed around the local home brew, an odd tasting beer made out of maize. I thought it was rancid and could barely take a sip but bro (surprise surprise) loved it as did a few other folks, and they promptly drank that dirty old bucket dry!

After leaving the ceremony, we set off back for lunch- toasted sandwiches made over a bonfire on the beach. Then it was time for cliff jumping- eek! The original plan was to do the jumps into the sea, but it was far too rough (phew), so we did them into the river instead. Talk about Jelly Knees!! It took me FOUR tries to actually do the jump (which was pretty high- some large number of metres), but I was one of the few girls to do it and it was a blast!

In the evening, as if we could hike anymore, we climbed a massive hill overlooking the bay to watch the sun go down. It was absolutely beautiful, and a few local mamas were up there selling beads which we bought as it’s a great way to support the community. The night continued with another epic game of killer pool, which I expertly botched for the second time, and a few more games of pool with some hammered South African guys called Gus and Adrian. Total loons. I was hanging out with my new friend Klaus from Germany- lovely guy- when Gus comes over to introduce himself and ask where we’re from and whatnot. “Ah, Germany,” he says to Klaus upon learning his nationality, “Hitler!” Um, what? Klaus and I seriously just stared at him for about a minute. It makes me glad to be continuing to expand my world view, undoubtedly protecting me from walking up to someone in Cambodia and saying, “So, how about that Pol Pot?”

Anywho, the next morning we were up and at ‘em for another hike (is there any stopping me??) to the Hole in the Wall, a free standing natural rock formation where the battering waves have created a huge archway. It’s really beautiful, and after being dropped off there, we hiked about three hours back to Coffee Shack. Now, you’re likely familiar with the African big five- elephant, rhino, lion and so on. Bro and I managed six weeks or so in Africa without seeing one of these, but the villages of the Transkei have their OWN big five, and we couldn’t hike more than three minutes without seeing one of these wild and wonderful creatures: pigs, sheep, chickens, horses and goats! At one point during our hike we even walked past Silas’ own sheep! However, he told us, if he is to find a wife (and he’s 25 so he’d quite like one- he’s done his circumcision forest ritual etc.), he needs to have ten cows, for this is what you pay the father of your bride. Until then, it’s the bachelor life for him!

For dinner that evening we had a seriously amazing treat. We (those of us staying at Coffee Shack) were invited to dinner in the home of the chief of Silas’ village. We walked up there to find the local mamas preparing us traditional food known as ‘pap’ which, like most things in the area, is made from maize. They were cooking it in huge cauldrons outside their mud huts, but before supper we all piled into the little circular hut (lit only by candles- there’s no electricity in the village) for a performance of traditional dancing by the mamas. They had their beads on, faces painted and sticks in hand, and before we knew it we were all up and joining in, traditional headdresses and all! There was a lot of clapping and jumping up and down and just general merriment and celebration just about being alive, I suppose! In those moments I was truly, genuinely, fiercely happy, and the love I was already feeling for the continent of Africa and its people increased hugely. I have but scratched the surface of it and as I’ve said before, I WILL be back!

After the dancing, we settled down to eat our pap (delish, actually!) and drink more maize beer (still yucky), dance some more and then have a Q&A with the mamas about our lives. They only speak Xhosa (impossible to make sense of, lots of clicking sounds and things), so Silas had to translate, but they wanted to know where we were all from (the UK to the US, Ireland to Israel) and if the young ladies were married (none of us were), and we wanted to know about daily village life and what they hope for the future. It was an incredible exchange, and I felt so privileged to hear the information first hand and be given a glimpse into a life that I really had no concept of before.

After dinner it was back to the hostel for more killer pool (nope, no luck again!) and lots of chatting and travel tale-swapping around the bonfire before bedtime, as in the morning it was back on ye olde Baz Bus!

We set off the next day at the very civilized hour of 11am, headed for Port Elizabeth which is a mandatory stop on the route. We arrived at 10pm and left at 6 the next morning, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about PE, but I’m sure it’s lovely.

Our next stop was Knysna (silent ‘K’) where we had two nights planned. It’s a beautiful area where there’s loads of outdoors-y things to do, but just our luck it absolutely POURED with rain the whole time we were there. Luckily we met another lovely brother/sister team from the UK and we went to the supermarket and the video shop with them and rented a whole bunch of movies! It was actually a nice relaxing time. It was also ‘Woman’s Day’ in South Africa, on which everyone gets a day off work (I KNOW!), so there wasn’t much open and happening anyway.

On our last morning in Knysna I managed to fit in a quick hike before the Baz Bus came with a new friend Claire and our guide, Orin. The rain had stopped, and Orin took us on a gorgeous walk through a rainforest and down to a fantastic beach where we scared off a family of baboons (considered a pest in the country- there are loads about, nicking everyone’s lunch and whatnot). I was glad to at least see a little bit of the area, especially before another long road trip.

The rest of the day was spent Baz Bus-ing our way to Cape Town, which took about eight hours or so. We were dropped off at a hostel on Long Street, which is THE place to be (it’s like Marshall Street or Polk Street or whatever, for those to whom those mean something). After a long day, it was basically dinner and bed, and we were up the next day for a walk around the city- the V&A waterfront, the planetarium, the South African museum. Cape Town is truly beautiful, nestled at the foot of Table Mountain. After a supermarket supper of beans on toast in the evening, it was time for a big night out with more new friends, which culminated in some serious dancefloor action at a bar called Zula. It’s possible that the ten of us from the hostel were the only patrons, but with classic 90s tunes like ‘California Love’ and ‘Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems’ burning up the speakers, what else could we do but jam?!

The next morning we were up (too) early for the hike up Table Mountain. Though I was feeling a bit worse for wear, I powered through the two-and-a-half hour hike up and it was INCREDIBLE! We actually did stop loads to sit and chat (about six of us were walking up) and I probably would have been a bit quicker if my new friend Adam and I weren’t lagging so far behind having an intense chat about our favorite books. Anyway, the views were absolutely amazing and after getting up there at about 2pm, we ended up staying the entire rest of the day climbing rocks, eating snacks and all enjoying a drink as we watched the sun start to set before we caught the last cable car down the mountain. That evening I was absolutely exhausted and after a couple of drinks I didn’t join the rest of the crew going out for the night, which turned out to be a good decision because the next morning I had the beginnings of a nasty cough and sore throat, but luckily that didn’t affect our trip to Robben Island the next morning.

As you probably know, Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner from 1963-1990. It’s about a 30-minute ferry ride from Cape Town, and once off the boat we were greeted by another former prisoner who was to be our guide. Itumeleng Makwela was a prisoner from 1983-1990, captured because he was in charge of the miliary wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and knew the location of illegal weapons. ‘Itu,’ as he’s known, first showed us the group cells where ‘regular’ political prisoners like himself were kept, then the kitchens and then took us to Section B where the leaders were imprisoned, including Mandela. We saw his cell and the place in the wall where he hid the original manuscript for A Long Walk To Freedom. Later on a bus tour of the island we saw the limestone quarry where the prisoners were forced to work each day, but which also became the place for them to discuss and exchange ideas for the future of the country- much of how South Africa is today originated in that quarry. People still live on the island- former prisoners, the staff that keep up the prison as a museum, etc.- so our tour also included a look at the little local school, shops and post office, as well as a stop to look at the great views back to Cape Town.

After our ferry ride back I was coming down with my sickness fast, so after lunch at the waterfront we headed back to the backpackers for a rest. I again wasn’t up for a night out, but felt much better the next morning for the LAST DAY WITH THE BROSEPH!!!

We spent our last day together souvenir and gift shopping at the Pan African market, backing up photos on CDs and generally looking for ways to get rid of our Rand! In the evening we treated ourselves to a real slap-up meal- the last supper- and reminisced about all the fabulous things we’ve seen and done since our journey began in May. I am really missing him, and truly appreciate the time we spent together and am glad he was with me for so much of the fun! Siblings are fab- treasure yours if you have them.

The next morning we were up for a 4am taxi to the airport- I was headed to Jo’burg to meet up with my dear mama for an onward journey to Madagascar, and the bro was New York-bound via Abu Dhabi.*

So, so long mon frère, so long Africa- it won’t be long until I see either of you again…

*Happy to report he made it back to Connecticut in one piece after 36 hours in transit!

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