Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Himalayan Homestay

After the universal drinking game known as 'SCULL,' I am invited back to the house of a new acquaintance in a nearby village. As an avid fan of 'Banged Up Abroad,' I'm always on the lookout for anything dodgy or suspect, but as I watched these two clowns dancing with the bar staff and smiling constantly, I decided to take my chances. I jump at the chance to leave Shimla too, as I've been cooped up in my hotel room due to injury. Going against the wishes of people back home, as well as the locals in Varanasi, I had bathed in the Ganges river with the pilgrims. While it had been a wonderful experience, somewhat supernatural even, I was paying the price for it weeks later, drunk and delirious with fever, on a long walk to a little known village on the outskirts of Shimla - with two drunken fools for company.

Channing was clearly the Krishna (think Casanova) of the duo, but it was me they used as bait for attracting local girls. I'm not sure if it's just a cultural difference, or a specific case, but it seemed to me like these two could not take a hint! The only things that seemed to deter them in their pursuit, were the words 'policeman' and 'call,' but even then it was hit and miss. When they weren't spouting bad Hindi pick-up lines, they were provoking members of the armed forces into often violent debates. I had no idea what was going on half the time, but I had a front row seat to the madness. I wondered long and hard about where this walk would take me, but after an hour's walk, we reached the house of Deepak's family before sunset.

The complex itself is four stories tall, and from the outside resembles a construction site. I have my reservations, but once I step inside the doors, I find both the living room and kitchen to be meticulously clean and immaculately presented. Almost immediately after setting foot inside, Deepak's younger sister is sent scurrying out the door in search of coffee. Unlike the majority of India, Deepak's household are coffee drinkers in an effort to combat Mata Ji's (Mother) low blood pressure. Like everything else on the subcontinent, coffee is heavily 'Indianized,' but it's not a bad thing. A delicate collection of spices is added, giving it a sweet, earthy and well rounded flavor.

Indian hospitality is famous, and just like my time in Bhita - I assume the role of evening entertainment. I am bombarded with questions, but not the usual onslaught of 'do you see lots of kangaroos' that Australians abroad are often subjected to. I'm asked about politics, music, morality, social order, and of course - marriage and children. My vegetarian declaration is met with murmured Hindi and downright astonishment.

"You must stay for dinner then!" declares Radhika, the eldest daughter of the family and apprentice veterinarian.

In true Indian spirit, no expense was being spared for the 'gora' (think cracker) who has come for dinner. As Mata Ji prepares the feast inside, Radhika offers to give me a quick tour of her village. After we leave her family's complex, she stops beside a decaying pile of broken-down bricks to fish out a pair of sticks.

"Here," she says, handing me one. "You will need one of these."

"Why?" I ask.

"If not for the monkeys, then for the street dogs."

After shooing away some mischievous macaques, Radhika takes me to her favorite chai stand, perched on top of a mountain, by the side of a winding road. Away from her mother's prying eyes, we are allowed to indulge in a little masala chai (spiced tea). Chai stands can be found all over India, and each purchase you make is like playing lucky dip, as every vendor uses different ingredients. Sometimes you'll find it overly spiced with ginger, and other times topped off with curdling milk, but this time the vendor gets it just right.

As tea was contraband in the household, we sip from our clay pots and sit by the side of the road to watch the setting sun. We watch it slowly disappear between the jagged peaks of two mountaintops, leaving streaks of sunlight across the mountain valleys below. As the aroma of spices from the chai wallah's stand wafts steadily in our direction, I think to myself that this recipe could be centuries old, and like the surrounding landscape - unchanged for generations. Drinks finished, Radhika reaches over to grab the cup from my hands. She smiles at me, like she's hiding a secret, and smashes the little clay cup into smithereens.

"Why did you do that?" I ask, looking over her shoulder to see if the chai wallah has noticed.

"We can use them only once, then it is returned back to Earth," she says solemnly. "Just like our hearts."

I decide not to ask her if she means physically or emotionally, but I nod my head anyway and stare into space for a while. Walking back towards the house, we hear the unmistakable chuckle of Deepak, who has been sent out in search of us - dinner is ready :)

* This article was featured on TouristAttitude on the 21st of December, 2010. Click here to check it out.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Shine a light on Shimla

(The following article was also featured on Lonely Planet, click here to check it out)

Shimla is the perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of India's many metro centres and tourist hotspots, not to mention the insufferable heat of the plains - after all, that's how Shimla came to be. Rediscovered by the British in 1819, it was used as a summer getaway. With a cool mountain breeze, hills blanketed by pine trees thick and green, and a town centre dotted with crumbling colonial charm - it's not hard to imagine why.

The air is fresh, reminiscent of Christmas trees and remarkably free of pollution, no doubt due to the city's refusal to allow vehicles in 'the mall' - Shimla's main street. An Indian city without honking horns, screeching sirens, terrifying traffic jams or predatory tuk-tuk drivers doesn't feel quite real, but it manages to work quite well nonetheless.

The people are friendly, the vultures are few and the surrounding landscape is breathtaking. Shimla is a hill station, meaning that instead of being situated at the base of the mountain or in a valley - it is carved into the mountaintop! I'm used to towns being built in the vicinity of mountains, but this is something else. You can appreciate the sheer altitude on any walk in and around town, this place is steep! Try to arrange a hotel that's closer to the bus station, as a long walk uphill with all your luggage gets old quick. Although it can be a physically draining place, you'll soon find that things here move at a pleasant pace. Shops and restaurants sleep in too, so don't bother setting an alarm. Relax, catch your breath, and you'll enjoy your surroundings and appreciate the scenery a whole lot more - I promise.

Whether scurrying on rooftops, or shuffling across balcony banisters, stay in town for many than five minutes and you're sure to meet some resident macaques. Resist the urge to smile at them though, as baring your teeth is a sign of aggression. Many locals clutch a stick at all times, which also comes in handy when a stray dog dislikes your scent. Expect a few strange looks though, as the majority of people in town are either honeymooners or tourists. You'll thank yourself when you encounter some of Shimla's more wolf-like stray dogs, stalking the alleyways late at night.

Shimla's main shopping avenue, the mall, is a collection of restaurants and retail vendors. As the name suggests, this shopping arcade has a more western feel than your average Indian bazaar. It's a welcome relief from weary travelers who have lost the will to bargain.

Bookstores are popular throughout India, and reading is a hobby that reigns supreme. I've noticed more than a few television shows devoted entirely to book discussions and new releases. I picked up a copy of Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea' at a local bookstore for about 50 cents. I was ecstatic, having wanted to read this particular story for a very long time.  I found a local watering hole that I hoped would do the tale justice. Instead of a gloomy bar stifled with smoke, as Hemingway himself would have frequented, I found an open-air rooftop bar with mountain views and clean fresh air. I sat in a corner booth, ordered a beer with chaser, and let the long awaited journey begin. I had barely got to the 85th day of Santiago's unlucky streak, before I was set upon by two excited youths.

"Awes-tray-lee-haa?" they inquired, loudly enough to stir a grumpy bar dweller by the restroom.
"Yes," I admitted. What happened next was strange, as the taller of the two looked left and right, as if watching a tennis match only he could see, before letting out an almighty bellow.
"RICKKKYYY PAWNTEN!" he shouted excitedly, clearly having learned the name of the Australian Cricket Captain from the over excited commentators that are so popular in this part of the world. They sound and act in an exaggerated manner, much like a televangelist would, but remember that this is India - cricket is religion.

Channing is the shorter of the pair, an established tattoo artist in town and hardcore Buddhist. Deepak is his apprentice, and both are proud vegetarians. At this point in time, I have been in India for over 6 weeks and am used to some of the locals pretending to be friendly in order to score a few beers. I'm pleasantly surprised though, as not only do they pay for their own drinks, but shout mine and refuse to even let me pay for ordered snacks.
"Please. You are our friend, very good friend. It is a gift to you," says Deepak, rolling his head from side to side, as a smile slowly spread across his face - the classic Indian head wobble :)

While it may feel like a world away from the hustle and bustle of big city life, the hot dusty plains or the Hindu heartbeat of Uttar Pradesh, Shimla is still very much India. It's also clean, safe, ridiculously picturesque and a welcome retreat for many chaos and clutter weary ex-pats who've come to call the subcontinent home.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Featured Article

The following article was featured on TouristAttitude, on Dec. 12th, 2010, click here to see it there.


"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

Earlier this year, I found myself in Varanasi. This was my first adventure on the Indian subcontinent, and in typical vagabond style, I planned nothing ahead of time. I envisioned a quick stopover for one or two nights, nothing fancy, before trudging onward to New Delhi – a grueling train journey that can last upwards of 24 hours! After my first rooftop smoke, and listening to a passionate call to prayer as the sun was slowly setting – I knew I wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.

My Dad had always told me that when he died, he wanted me to take his ashes to Varanasi and scatter them in the Ganges river, to do this he said was 'a passport to heaven.' I later learned that there are only fifteen days each year (determined by astrology) known as the 'festival of the dead' in which one can escape the cycle of rebirth, and the doorway to Nirvana is opened. While the chances of dying within this window of opportunity are less than five percent, many elderly people in India choose to live our their final days in Varanasi, in the hopes that they'll be in the lucky minority. 

There are many houses for the sick and dying in town, and with some of the more popular ghats cremating up to 200 bodies on any given day, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Varanasi is all doom and gloom. While death may be an everyday affair, life is too, something which people often forget. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world, and while this claim may be disputed by scholars, the city has been continually inhabited for at least 3000 years. Legend has it that Shiva gifted this city to his wife as a wedding gift, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' A festival is held during February/March each year, coincidentally landing on Valentine's Day. The town is awash with drunken lovers, and bhang lassi (think marijuana milkshake) flows freely. Don't be surprised to see locals pouring tea or whiskey for a seemingly invisible person, this is Shiva's city and these offerings are a sign of respect. 

After two weeks in town, I decided to do as the locals do, and bathe in the holy river. The Ganges river is the holiest river in all of India, and is known in circles as the 'Hindu heartbeat.' Over two million pilgrims bathe in the waters each day, with around 60,000 in Varanasi alone. I decide to live in the moment, shake off the numerous warnings I have received both at home and abroad, and go for an early morning dip. (For an extended story on my plunge into murkiness, click here

The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of sacred water. Step by slippery step, I descend down the ghats and into the murky brown water. The color and consistency is something like French onion soup. It is at this point that my brain feels the need to remind me that along the 7km stretch of river that runs through town, there are over 30 sewers pumping out last night's masala dosa. As I remember a disembodied skull that was bobbing up and down beside the boat, only days earlier on a sunset cruise – I decide abruptly that it's time to dry off.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Delhi - A tale of two cities

First of all, you've got Old Delhi, which is your standard Indian metro centre. It's noisy, it's polluted, the crowds are intense and the general pace of life is frantic. It's bound to be frustrating at first, but persevere and you shall prosper! (Hopefully)

Delhi has some of the best street food in the country, and the old city is the place to find it. Aloo tikki, bhel puri, vada pav, veg roll or even pani puri - if it's Indian, it's here. There are also many mosques in the area, and with them comes the call to prayer - 5 times a day. The perfect way to prove that you're in a foreign land, especially if the noise, chaos and wandering livestock didn't already put you over the line. It's beautiful to stop and listen to something that has remained unchanged for centuries, these poetic prayers of the faithful are authentic and free to listen to. Although you may not feel so inspired if your hotel is located nearby, as the first call to prayer of the day can be a tad early, something in the vicinity of 6am - that's the middle of the night for me!

New Delhi looks like Singapore. Now perhaps it's just that I've been in India too long, but the roads are well maintained, not so congested and motorcyclists wear helmets. It's little things like this that make me feel like I've suddenly crossed international borders. Trees line the street and at the right time of day or night, you can have the footpath to yourself. The nightlife options are limited however, and rather lackluster if I'm being completely honest. There is live music, but it often starts and finishes very early - say 9pm. Finding your venue will be the usual challenge, even if you do have the address written down. Expect heated discussions with the tuk-tuk drivers, and locals alike. There are nightclubs too, but as there's nobody here to try and drag me inside (kicking and screaming), I can just shake my head and laugh off those generic club beats.

Being the capital city of India, Delhi has its fair share of western visitors, and as such, expect all quoted prices to be high. Unfortunately, you might also be sold products that don't work in the hopes that you're just passing through. I was sold a broadband stick for the princely sum of 2000 rupees, about $50 (bargained down from 4000 rupees), only to find out that it didn't work. The rude shopkeeper assured me it would work anywhere in the country, but apparently just a few blocks down the road was out of the question. After trying to handle the situation politely, my temper got the better of me after one too many sneers from this repugnant vulture. I decided my best bet was to make an unholy scene, and scare off any potential customers in the process. I swore in both Hindi and English, just to make sure my point was getting across - "you're a fuckwit, give me my money back you jeering jockstrap!"

I'm fairly sure that in my pidgin Hindi, my sentences weren't quite so eloquent. Instead I chose to lampoon the morality of his Mother's sexual misdeeds, implying that she must have mated with a baboon to create such unholy offspring. When even this failed to wipe the smirk from his ugly face, I chose instead to simply walk behind the counter and sit beside him on an empty office chair. Almost immediately, a customer walked into the store and before she could even utter a syllable, I told her what kind of operation was being run here. She nodded knowingly, thanked me sincerely and left the store with a smile on her face. It felt good to be a force of good in this world :)

My laughter was loud and proud in the the face of this parasite, and when the same thing happened again and again - he finally conceded. If he didn't, I would have happily spent the whole day in the store preventing him from ripping off unsuspecting tourists. There was air-con, a water dispenser and more tension than any knife could handle (yes, even a miracle blade). When he returned my money though, rather than using a key to open the cash register, he instead removed a thick wad of rupees from his overstuffed wallet. I counted each note in front of him, making sure to inspect for flaws. When it came time to leave, it was my turn to sneer :P

The exact site of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination.
The sights to see in Old Delhi, are as the name would suggest - historic. There's the impressive Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Chandi Chowk for shopping and Raj Ghat (the site of Gandhi's cremation). My armpit may have been throbbing since Agra, but it wasn't going to stop me from seeing everything and anything Gandhi. It amazes me that in the country of his birth, the locals are the first to cast stones on his achievements! I thought that here of all places is where he'd be showered with praise, but instead he is ridiculed and scoffed at by many, particularly the younger generation. The main complaint I heard, is that he didn't force the Muslims to leave India - they were able to choose either way.

Seems pretty foolish to mock someone due to their acceptance of all religions, doesn't it? If anything, it should be celebrated.

Drop by Raj Ghat on Friday (the day he was killed) to view a commemorative ceremony put on . Locals welcome questions, but please wait until after the ritual is finished. There's a nearby Gandhi museum with friendly staff and several large rooms lined wall to wall with pictures and facts (Hindi/English) on the life and times of the beloved Mahatma. The time line of facts is impressive, if a little extensive, but for a better feel of who he was and the reverence in which some of his people hold him, a visit to Gandhi Smitri is a must.

It is here you can trace his final steps, as he left his room for prayer one final time. Many mourners, although long overdue, pay their respects in large numbers. More than 60 years have passed since his death, but you wouldn't know from looking around. Gandhi was a small man in stature, but big in spirit, I think he put it best himself - "My life is my message."

The amount of vultures and rip-off merchants looking for easy prey, is probably a draw card the Indian capital could do without. As always though, it's the rotten apples that spoil the bunch, and you don't need to look hard to find the friendly folks - just leave Paharganj!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More than just a stopover...

(The following article was published on Lonely Planet's website on the 22nd of November, 2010. Click here to check it out)

To really understand Malaysia, you'll need to plan more than just a stopover in the nation's capital - Kuala Lumpur. If you happen to find yourself there for 24 hours due to unforeseen circumstances (or cancelled flights), rest assured - there's plenty to see and do. To get your bearings, head to Bukit Bintang (Golden Triangle). Although this is undoubtedly the tourist precinct in KL, it's not all bad news. This is also the city's shopping and nightlife precinct, with open-air food stalls and a few makeshift bars open late each night. You'll find plenty to keep you entertained, from world class cuisine to relaxing massages, and everything in between.

For those sick and tired of regular massages, why not try the special 'fire-cup' technique? Also known as 'cupping,' you can try this traditional form of Chinese medicine for under $20. It dates back thousands of years and involves suction of the skin, in order to suck out all the bad properties while replenishing the good, much like the way leeches were used in the middle ages. The process is no doubt painful, with each fitted cup bringing with it a feeling akin to clothes peg on nipple. After 20 minutes of waiting and wondering, all amidst incessant laughter from a mob of masseuses, the suction cups are finally removed and the sense of relief is overwhelming.

You'd be well within your right to eat every meal in Bukit Bintang, as this part of the city showcases the depth of Malaysia's obsession and love affair with food. Every cuisine is represented, from Mexican and Iraqi restaurants, to Thai and Pakistani street stalls. If you do choose to leave the area, and want to try some fantastic Indian food, make sure you head south and check out Brickfields, or as it's known to locals - Little India.

I have eaten Indian food all over the world, including in India, but Sangeetha Vegetarian Restaurant (Palace Hotel, Brickfields) still stands out. On my last visit to the Malaysian capital, I stumbled into this restaurant by pure chance and foolishly forgot to get a business card. I thought about the place often, but without even a name to go by, my chances of finding nirvana through nourishment again, were lowered drastically. I only knew that it was in Brickfields, near a bazaar and at the base of a hotel.

After being dropped off by the marketplace, my wild goose chase is thankfully short, and I have found my happy place in under an hour. In every respect, my first visit here resulted in the best meal I'd ever had in my life, and probably ever will. I decided this time around, I'll order the same thing - Gobi Manchurian with Masala Dosa to start. Although I've ordered the exact same meal before, complete with naan and chutney, the taste still blows me away.

Kuala Lumpur is big and bustling, there's no doubt about it. Look past the honking and the horns, and you'll find it's also something else, and while it may seem slightly western - it is undeniably Asian.

Best of Malaysia - Ipoh vs. Georgetown

(The following article was featured on Lonely Planet's website on the 24th of November, 2010. Click here to check it out)

WINNER - Ipoh, Perak

Winners are grinners, and the locals here are full of smiles. The city of Ipoh is engulfed by jungle on all sides. The landscape is blanketed in a brilliant shade of green that lays undisturbed, except for the limestone peak of an occasional jagged mountain. The architecture is colonial, and with it comes a laid-back feel - a welcome relief from the chaos of Kuala Lumpur. The town boasts many boulevards, a range of roundabouts and frequent fountains.

Like in Georgetown, the amount of street food stalls is staggering, but the ubiquitous hawker stands take up less sidewalk space. Ipoh is famous even by Malaysian standards for cheap and delicious foods, and most meals will cost less than $1. Backpackers take heed...

Ipoh is famous throughout the coffee drinking world for 'Ipoh White Coffee,' a regional specialty in which the coffee beans are roasted with butter and salt, and served with condensed milk. The end result is an aftertaste akin to popcorn, one which is absolutely addictive. I spoke with Amy, one of the managers at Ipoh Central Cafe (address: Jalan Raja Ekram), who shared with me the reason her cafe made the best brew in town. "We do not mix beans!" she exclaimed. "In America, or Europe, people mix beans together. We use only local harvest."

I leave the cafe after three delicious iced coffees. I cross the road, halting suddenly as somebody yells out to me from a motorcycle.
"HELLO FRIEND" he shouts enthusiastically, with his whole family piled on the small frame of the bike. I wave back a hurried response to this man who has already started to slow the traffic behind him.
"How are you finding yourself today?!" he shouts, no need for an inside voice as we are on a busy stretch of road and must shout over all the blaring horns, just to make ourselves heard.
"Yeah, really good," I reply, shocked and unable to match his level of intensity.
"Ipoh very nice city, good people here take care for you," he says, before zooming off in a cloud of dust. His two young children wave and smile in my direction, bidding me farewell in their local language. Ipoh and Georgetown both have wonderful food options, but only Ipoh can boast locals this friendly. 

LOSER - Georgetown, Penang

As I set off for the island state of Penang, I was very excited. I figured anything nicknamed the 'Pearl of the Orient' would have to be beautiful! However, this initial excitement decreased drastically, the longer the trip to get here took. This tiresome journey included twelve hours on a train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur,  imediately followed by a further eight hours on a train from KL to Butterworth, from Butterworth it was only a fifteen minute ferry, but my patience was already pushed at this point and this little island was going to have to work hard to impress me.

After disembarking from the ferry, I take a walk through the crowded streets of Georgetown. It is a rare occasion when the streets are not just crowded with people, but with an abundance of decaying buildings which although lay dormant, appear to be jostling for position. One cannot simply walk down a footpath here, as space is limited and every available inch is used. It's a constant game of back and forth, as you must alternate between road and storefront in order to proceed to your destination. I choose not to visit the northern part of the island known as 'Batu Ferringhu,' as I have a sneaking suspicion that the Malay translation is along the lines of 'beach for tourist.' No thanks.

This is not a city full of landmarks, or must-see attractions. For the bulk of visitors, it is a place to indulge in digestive decadence. A place to relax by the beach, catch up on reading or spend long periods of downtime. There is a reggae cafe with many depictions of Bob Marley, but being caught in possession of any drug in Malaysia will lead to similar penalties found in Singapore.

What catches my interest instead, is a tank with little water in it, but many thrashing eels. Thinking it was a pit of snakes, I wandered over to get a better look. The restaurant manager was more than happy for me to take a photo, and happy to explain the process. Live eels are worth more than dead ones, so when they are transported, they are kept alive with a little water and oxygen. Some diners even choose to have the specimen prepared in such a way, that it is still alive upon consumption. Apparently to 'look them in the eyes while you eat them, is to gain their soul and fighting spirit.' In other words - bullshit.

I head to Upper Penang Road, the restaurant/nightlife district, to look for a cheap feed. Penang is the home of 'laksa,' a famous noodle soup which is known throughout the world. I decide to try the local specialty, from one of the many food stalls that line the busy street. The vendor and I share a game of charades, during which I express my desire for a vegetarian laksa in which there is no fish stock. A passerby takes pity on me, and translates my concern. The vendor is all too happy to help out, and since everything is prepared fresh before my eyes - there is nothing to be concerned about. I find the soup to be tasty and fresh, but a little too sweet for my liking. In terms of laksa, my vote is with sour not sweet.