Thursday, 18 May 2017

India - some good bits

Backpacking in northern India is not for the faint-hearted. We cut short our intended stay from three months to five weeks for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with pollution, filth, poverty and constant loud noise. To be fair, there was also probably an accumulation effect from three months in Egypt, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Lest you think that we hated India, we really didn’t; here are some random highlights:

The nectar of the sub-continent

The best tea is behind bars, Jo says
The first encounter with Indian tea can be startling, especially if you are of the PG Tips and no sugar persuasion.

Chai is served in small cups that look mean compared to the stout British mug. But your first sip confirms that the amount is just right. It is extremely sweet, very milky and spiced. It is often made with no water at all, making it essentially a hot, gingery, tea milkshake. And it is a wonderful thing, particularly on a freezing morning in the Himalayan foothills: one slug provides enough mojo to get you dressed, out the door and headlong to the first Buddhist temple.

Enter the dragon

Calm, calm...
The Taj Mahal was built as a homage to an adored woman. Ironic then that entry into the complex seems expressly designed to infuriate… women.

Waiting over 40 minutes in their queue, their eyes narrowing, the women watch the men blithely sauntering to the front of the men-only queue.

When the ladies finally get to the front, the mystery is laid bare: the men have five security booths, the women, one.

Only after a good ten minutes venting to your husband about the ludicrousness of this scenario can you gaze in wonder and fully appreciate the grandeur of the Taj Mahal which – clichéd but true - no photo can capture.

All is forgotten, if not forgiven.

Corpses on fire

The sacred cows like to warm themselves by the flames
There is a positive side to this. Bear with us.

Over 200 bodies a day burn down to ash by the Ganges in the city of Varanasi. They are on wooden pyres open to view by everyone, and if you choose to look you will see everything imagineable.

It is horrific at first, but our tour guide artfully set it in context, and by the time we left the city we appreciated the practical Hindu take on the mortal coil. There’s nothing like seeing a son set light to his mum’s corpse or stokers snapping an errant leg back into the flames to understand that these really are empty shells. The important bit has clearly died or gone elsewhere.

OK, not the greatest fun, but as memorable as it gets.      

Fun with trains

Jo wisely hogging the bottom bunk on the train to Agra
A friend insists that the trains are the best thing about India – and indeed they are funny in a Mr Bean kind of way. Glossing over their punctuality, here’s some entertainment they provided us:

We learned not to assume that the B1 sleeper carriage you’ve been assigned is actually the right B1. There can be more than one. So before you turf out the poor sleeping occupants of your bunks, best to walk the length of the train and find more B1 carriages... maybe even yours.

If you have bagged a coveted lower bunk, be prepared in early morning to find a stranger from an upper bunk casually sitting beside your feet waiting for the rest of his family to come and join him and sit on you.

Snacks and chai are continuously, vocally on offer. At the start you shy away from the exotic options and stick to what you know: bags of crisps. Familiarity and overconfidence eventually tip you to bolder choices: "Yes sir, I will have two old newspaper cones of that weird crispy thing with onions, tomatoes and lime all mixed together by your fair hand." Which leads neatly on to…

Dave’s dodgy constitution

Dave re-enacts that first night, at the Chandigarh Stone Garden
Dave got a bit ill. Delhi Belly crept up on him in the dead of night and remains lurking within him to this day.

Fortunately we have a friend well read in diseases which target careless travellers and he supplied a hit-list of suspects to eliminate. It isn't food poisoning. It isn't giardia. It isn't amoebic dysentery and, Dave insists, it is not hypochondria. The investigation continues.

On its own this condition would be handicap enough but it coincided with a sudden onset of what the Beano would describe as Lumbago, caused by bending over to pick up a shoe. Doubly unfortunate because the event coincided with embarkation on a 13-hour, very bumpy bus ride.

The upshot of all this is that Jo is now even shorter, her spine compressed two inches by the valiant job of carrying both 15kg rucksacks from bus/train to station over a two-week period while Dave healed. Another reason Dave loves her.

Too much to report

We wrote more diary entries here and took more photos than in any other country. India is as astonishing as people say.

But there’s no point trying to relay everything we have seen and done in a blog post, and certainly not over a pint. It’s all memories primarily of interest to us, which we will more than happily share with you when you decide to go!

Go here for our best photos and videos

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Are we really celebrities?

Growing our adopted global family, Lucknow.  
Yesterday we were sitting on a bench when an Indian woman with a gaggle of friends and children strode up to us, demanded where we were from and asked if she could take a group picture with us.

This happens a lot: once a day at least when we are at tourist spots. And even though we have learned to pick up the pace as the next group of admirers approach, we mostly don't mind. In terms of attention, don't they say it's better to be talked about than not talked about at all?

We had the same on our Africa trip, except no-one had smartphones then so a photo wasn't an option. We thought they just wanted a dab of our Western stardust. In those days this translated into your phone number or email address, not information you're inclined to give. Sadly when this wasn't forthcoming, or after to our shame we had given a false email, it transformed into a request for money. At least nowadays the photo seems enough.

"Left a bit, that's it, give us a pout, love. Beautiful!"
Without exception this trip's selfie requests have been friendly and well-meaning, if sometimes abrupt because the person making the request is nervous. When it's a group of boys, I sense it's almost always the result of a bet!

So why are they doing it? I used to think it was just a minor form of celebrity worship. In the same way that if you saw [celebrity of your choice] on a nearby bench you might jokily request a selfie. That is if you were less a timorous Brit and more a robust Indian.

Normal Western behaviour,  Burma 
But this theory breaks down a little if you look at Jo and me, well me mostly. For sure we have the trappings of the rich West - the white skin, the camera, the ineptitude at waggling the head - but in every other department we fall down. We have street urchin hair, our clothes are gently disintegrating,  shoes are uniformly dust-coloured, and it's not as if we bear any resemblance to Posh and Becks or demonstrate any talent for sport or stage.

I'm developing a better theory. In Sri Lanka I got down with the locals and bought myself a traditional wraparound longji (as photo) . When I arrived in Burma I continued to wear it. They wear longjis there too, so it seemed OK. But it transpired over time that mine was seen as ridiculously garish compared to the local version and moreover I was tying it at the side, as women do, instead of at the front, as men do. So imagine a man walking down the high street wearing a purple polka-dot dress. That was me.

I only found this out because the locals couldn't stifle their laughter. Thankfully two nice people explained the situation after they had caught breath.

But it's made me reconsider the whole celebrity thing. What other cultural faux pas are we committing? Do my sideburns mean I'm up for something unmentionable? Is Jo's hairclip the icon of the Allahabad Monster Raving Loony Party? Should we never sit together on a bench? Individually these things might be small but as an aggregate... we probably look like complete clowns.

We got our own back on these friendly rogues in Kolkata 
So I propose this: we aren't Brangelina. We're Laurel and Hardy. We are touring India and giving everyone a good laugh. And the bolder locals can put the evidence on their mantelpiece.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Why to visit Burma in 2019

From a tourist's perspective Burma has a vibe like Sri Lanka's: genuinely friendly, simultaneously laid-back and energetic, and on the road to recovery from horrific recent events. The memories here are raw, and it ain’t all over yet, but you know that some locals are loving seeing tourists for the first time since the start of World War II.

Where it all Bagan
Unless you are of a more adventurous disposition, we suggest you hold fire on a visit. Why? Because getting anywhere takes an age as the roads are still being sealed (the commonest roadside sight is villagers breaking rocks). Hotel demand sometimes exceeds supply, which sends prices up. Several parts of the countries are off-limits to tourists. And standards generally need to come up a notch or two.

Here are some reasons why we think you should eventually come. If it's not obvious, we loved the place.

The people

No bribery was involved in this pose
While generalising about nationalities is something we normally discourage... we found everyone in Burma cheerful, guileless, hospitable and polite, seasoned with a dash of mischief. The little children in particular are imprinted on our memory: their exuberance on seeing a couple of sweaty white foreigners was a wonderful thing.

We were met with two-handed high fives and enthusiastic greetings of  "Bye!!"  wherever we went. Never a request for money, sweets or even pens.... just the unadulterated joy of an exchange with Whiteys. In less tourist-visited areas this resulted in us assuming a Santa Claus persona whereby kids would rush from their homes just to wave and catch a glimpse of our talismanic forms lolloping by.



We have travelled a fair bit and have never seen a sunset like a Burmese sunset.

The clouds seem to catch fire.

There's work here for someone
Imagine London's Oxford Street 20 years after a neutron bomb attack and that's pretty much what downtown Yangon looks like, except there are also lots of very-alive people, dogs, cats, pigeons and occasional rats.

Yangon has the most complete set of colonial buildings in southeast Asia, and the streetscapes are a delight if fading grandeur is your thing.

The country's flagship tourist site is Bagan - a dusty plain punctuated by over 4000 stupas and temples.

The view to the horizon from one of the higher temples is unforgettable if you can see past everyone else's mobile phones.

The beaches in the south are a simple extension of Thailand's beaches. Only they have never seen a reclining chair or Singha beer. We found the most beautiful, clean and empty beach of our lives and stayed there three days. In two years I reckon it will still be the same way, unless they have upgraded the road. Contact us for details!

The food

The Myanmar people are masters of combining flavours and textures in a single dish: soft but crunchy; spicy, salty with a hint of sour - so perfectly encapsulated in the tastebud-awakening breakfast staple, Mohinga (spicy fish broth with soft noodles and crispy chickpea fritters; it may sound disgusting but tastes sublime).

Tea Leaf Salad - it'll give you wings

And then there is the iconic fermented Tea Leaf Salad with its assault-on-the-senses overdrive so perfectly summarised by Emma, one hotel host's eight-year old daughter as having "Too much taste!".

This is the only salad we've ever eaten that needs a plain rice accompaniment. I could go on but Dave rations the words in this bl


Where to start? Just five minutes' walk down a Yangon street is guaranteed to throw up a bizarre object/behaviour you cannot fathom. Among the top head-scratchers are:

The capital's motorways. I think the man on the bike needn't worry.
The new (2006) Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Have you ever wondered what a city designed by someone with no qualifications in town planning might look like? Here it is. Nay Pyi Taw allegedly covers 2700 square miles, has empty eight-lane highways, perfectly manicured verges, world-class hotels, conference centres and ministry buildings and no people to speak of. The place is devoid of character, charm and personality and it is fitting that it is the beating heart of the Military-majority government. Only one embassy (Bangladesh) has succumbed to the pressure to relocate from Yangon.

Popular now in Burma
Buddhas. There can never be enough, and the bigger the better. We witnessed not only the world`s biggest reclining one but also the outline of its half-built replacement on the opposite hill. It brought to mind Star Wars' Death Star in scaffolding phase. Weird enough, one might conclude, but the presence of a monstrous Frank Sidebottom looming out of the nearby canopy (left) sealed the deal.(Video and photos on Flickr)

George Orwell was a policeman here in the 1920s. No doubt his witnessing of colonial racism and brutality fed straight into 1984 and Animal Farm. A curious thing is that he wrote his angry, semi-autobiographical Burmese Days while an impoverished bottle-washer in Paris. And then went to live in sleepy old Southwold. Great writer. Odd bloke.

We actually don't want to see this again

An important rule of Burmese kickboxing is you can kick your opponent anywhere. Anywhere. No surprise then that several boxers we saw collapsed in a heap after a knee-ing in their soft parts. The monks in the audience seemed to take particular delight.

Burmese festival music. Sorry but this sounds like someone has taken a screeching parrot, a set of drums and several xylophones and pushed them off a steep slope, with bumps on the way down. There's no rhythm, melody or accuracy that we could tell. It is cacophony. But judging by the delight in the onlooker's faces, the loss must be ours.

Click for copious illustration of the above

Monday, 16 January 2017

Egypt versus Sri Lanka

No, Egypt haven't taken up cricket as far as we know, and we're not sure they've played Sri Lanka in anything, ever. This is just a contrivance so we can cover both countries in one blog post*. Be aware that the following comparisons are based on brief observation and pretty much no knowledge.

Essex girls pass on some tips
Steering and accelerating like someone who wants to die,  and who wants to take everyone with him, is standard in both countries.

But Egypt gets special status for driving at night with the lights off, unless drivers think oncoming traffic should see them, in which case they give them a blinding flash of headlamps on full. 

Winner: Sri Lanka.


Great Sri Lankan locations can't make up for bland Hoppers
A classic Full Egyptian comprises floppy flatbread, crisp and moist falafel, delicious fried vegetables, savoury mashed beans ("Foul Mesdames", unfortunately), fresh juice and eggs. At least. Each dish is gorgeous. 

A Full Sri Lankan meanwhile is String Hoppers, which are soft packet noodles wrapped around sweet coconut and Hoppers, which are sweet crêpes, then dahl and fruit. Whatever.

Winner: Egypt.     

Tourist costs
No backpackers in the crazy queue up Sigirya
Our hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings cost £50 for the two of us. Hotels were £15/night. Entry into the Necropolis, Abu Simbel etc - Egypt's big ticket items - was so cheap as to be unmemorable.  Public transport and food were pennies. The country is a bargain.

Sri Lanka hotels and public transport were the same but, boy, the big ticket items were so much we sometimes didn't go. $30 each to climb a big rock (Sigirya)? No. The same for an afternoon at an ancient city (Pollonaruwa)? Just, yes. £175 for another hot air balloon ride? Sri Lanka is a seller's market right now and sometimes you feel you're being fleeced.

Winner: Egypt.
Old stuff
Tranquillity in granite. Pollonaruwa, Sri Lanka
Egypt has the antiquity - there's stuff over 4000 years old, some of it mint. But there's a familiarity to the sights and not so many surprises.

Sri Lanka has rain (unlike Egypt), so things haven't weathered so well, but few of us could put a name to any of the island's fabulous Hindu statues. And those Buddhas carved from stone are more mesmerising than the Donald Trump of ancient Egypt (Ramesses II at Abu Simbel). And then there are Dambulla's painted caves that hold more atmosphere and mystery than the brightly-lit tombs of the Kings.
Winner: A tie.

Tourist hospitality
Jo braving an expert
Several times in Sri Lanka we had to go up to parked tuktuk drivers to ask for a ride. Shop owners smiled politely from behind distant counters. My gentle haggling intimidated the car hire guy.

In Egypt meanwhile the horse-and-trap drivers, stall owners, and the alleged cook from our hotel (our hotel clearly had an infinite number of cooks) spotted us from three miles and were advertising their or their brother's services in seconds. Relentlessly. Agonisingly. Almost viciously. Just Please Go Away.

Winner: Sri Lanka.

Natural scenery
Lakes, hills, monasteries, monkeys, Jo, Sri Lanka
The Nile is nice and its banks are classic. The desert is beautiful if you like that kind of thing (Dave yes, Jo no). The Red Sea coast is stark but of course, lovely underwater.

Sri Lanka meanwhile has jungle, savannah, high mountains, Scottish highlands (if you squint), strange rocks, pretty tropical beaches, and its own coral reefs. No competition.

Winner: Sri Lanka

Daylight fills the room...
Internal doors
The things we take for granted. Egypt has internal doors like ours, you know, two bits of plywood half an inch apart.

Someone has sold in a different concept to the Sri Lankans. Their doors and door frames are made of just-strong-enough plastic.  They let light through.  But, perhaps significantly, they fit snugly enough to keep mosquitos out. Maybe they are onto something.

Winner: Sri Lanka. Why not?

Overall winner
A silly concept I suppose. Both countries are amazing, as most countries are. Go to Egypt. It is suffering and it needs the income even more than Sri Lanka at the moment; its tourist industry is on its knees while Sir Lanka's is up and running. The sights are timeless and amazing and the place is currently a bargain. And this is how to deal with the hassle.

* Laptop broke in December and we couldn't bring ourselves to blog by smartphone. The replacement is a £200 Lenovo MIIX 310, with which we are very happy despite its Thai bamboozling. Still looking for the hash key, and always forgetting where @ is.