Category Archives: Asia

The American War in Vietnam

Vietnam became a colony in the 1880’s, when France took control by force. Like most of South East Asia it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. After the war, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, communists from the northern part of Vietnam who had resisted the Japanese, declared Vietnam independent. They were not prepared to continue being a colony of France. Patrick thinks that this must have been due, at least in part, to the fact that the French had not been able to defend Vietnam from the Japanese, and that they were undoubtedly more concerned about defending French territory in Europe. This resulted in a war between the Viet Minh and the French, who didn’t want to give up their valuable colony. The French were supported in this war by money and weapons donated by America. In 1954 the Vietnamese captured many French soldiers forcing a negotiated settlement called the “Geneva Accords” requiring French withdrawal and temporarily dividing the country into North and South at the Ben Hai River until elections could be held. The neutral territory on either side of this river was called the De-militarized zone (DMZ). When the anti-communist leader of the South refused to hold these elections, the temporary division became a de-facto permanent one, creating North and South Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese were communists trying to ‘liberate’ their countrymen in the South, only some of who wanted to be liberated. In 1960, they began a military confrontation to reunite Vietnam under their leadership. America worried that if the North succeeded in defeating the American-supported leadership of South Vietnam that the resulting ‘domino effect’ could see all of South East Asia eventually become communist. This was in the late 1960’s, at the height of the cold war. America fought the war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 before a cease-fire was agreed to in Paris. Without American support, it was only a matter of time.

North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, capital of South Vietnam on April 30th, 1975. Soon after it was renamed ‘Reunification Palace’ and opened to the public. It has been preserved in the state it was then. Saigon was also renamed Ho Chi Minh city, but most people still call is Saigon.

We visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. It is billed as a museum about the atrocities of war. What they don’t say is that it is a museum only about American atrocities from the war in Vietnam. This makes it even more interesting because it presents only the Vietnamese government’s perspective on the war. It displays much captured American weaponry including tanks, planes, helicopters, and small arms, implicitly reminding people of who won the war.

It highlights American war atrocities including bombing of civilians, torture of captured soldiers and civilians, and the use of toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. It displays many pictures of injured Vietnamese civilians, especially women and children, and of birth defects purportedly caused by toxic chemicals. The most gruesome artifact is the bodies of two still born children with physical disabilities attributed to dioxin, floating in a tank of preservative. We wondered what both the Vietnamese people and American tourists milling about thought of these exhibits. Did they feel the same things?

The Vietnamese and much of the world believe that America engaged in an illegal war in Vietnam. Undoubtedly their opposition, referred to here as ‘Vietnamese Communists’, ‘Vietnamese Patriots’, or ‘Liberators of South Vietnam’ and by American soldiers as ‘Viet Cong’ or ‘VC’, committed many atrocities too, but these are never mentioned here.

Today both French and American tourists are welcomed in Vietnam, which has diplomatic relations with both of these countries. There are a lot of French tourists here, probably because Vietnam was a former French colony. French tourists we’ve spoken to say that they do not sense any animosity or resentment from the Vietnamese.

Things you can do on a motor scooter

We’ve seen a lot of things done on a small motor scooter during on our travels. Here are some of them:

  • Lean against it while trying to look cool for the opposite sex
  • Make out with one’s boyfriend or girlfriend in the park while balancing on the kickstand
  • Pull a carriage behind it to transport tourists
  • Pull a cart behind it to transport goods
  • Carry huge lengths of bamboo, pipe, or reinforcing bar, like a modern day knight and lance
  • Transport a family of five at the same time
  • Take your dog for a ride in the front basket, so he can feel the wind in his face
  • Transport live animals, including poor ducks who strain to avoid scraping their bills on the pavement
  • Transport dead animals — Diane saw a scooter loaded with dead dogs going to market
  • Operate a motorcycle taxi service
  • Pull your friend riding a bicycle
  • Let your toddler stand up in front, holding onto the console, while you drive
  • Rent it to tourists without insurance or helmets
  • With thousands of other scooters, make it virtually impossible for pedestrians to cross the street

Quotes from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

These words are from the leader of Himalayan Buddhism, a man who describes himself as ‘a simple Buddhist monk’. They had resonance for us, so we wanted to share them with you.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

“I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed.”

“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”

“For those who may not find happiness to exercise religious faith, its okay to remain a radical atheist, it’s absolutely an individual right, but the important thing is with a compassionate heart — then no problem.”

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

“Nowadays the world is becoming increasingly materialistic, and mankind is reaching toward the very zenith of external progress, driven by an insatiable desire for power and vast possessions. Yet by this vain striving for perfection in a world where everything is relative, they wander even further away from inward peace and happiness of the mind.”

“I truly believe that individuals can make a difference in society. Since periods of change such as the present one come so rarely in human history, it is up to each of us to make the best use of our time to help create a happier world.”

“Every day, think as you wake up,
Today I am fortunate to have woken up,
I am alive, I have a precious human life,
I am not going to waste it,
I am going to use all my energies to develop myself,
To expand my heart out to others,
To achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings,
I am going to have kind thoughts towards others,
I am not going to get angry,
or think badly about others
I am going to benefit others as much as I can”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

“Be kind whenever possible…It is always possible.”

Elephant Training

We’ve been looking for the right opportunity to get up close and personal with elephants. We wanted to find a place where the elephants were not there just for tourists to sit on like an amusement park ride, and we wanted to go only where the elephants were well cared for. We found such a place outside of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, an elephant camp where elephants that used to work in logging, a practice which is no longer employed in Thailand, are given a new home and something to do.

Elephants are revered in Thailand. They are a cultural symbol for the country. All elephants in captivity are licensed. The Thai government has an elephant training school and a hospital where any elephants can be taken, and also traveling veterinarians because it’s tough to transport an elephant! Elephants with certain physical characteristics are considered ‘royal’ and are turned over the King.

Elephants were commonly used for logging in the past. Because of their great size and strength, they would literally push trees over with their foreheads and then drag them around with their trunks or with chains. Logging is a tough life for an elephant though, and these elephants typically only lived to about 40 years of age. If they are well cared for, elephants can live to be up to 80 years old, and so there are many of them (and their trainers called ‘mahouts’) who need work now that they are no longer logging.

The elephants here are of the Indian variety and are found in the wild throughout south Asia. Indian elephants are smaller in stature that African elephants, with bigger heads and smaller ears. It is because of their larger head (and brains) that they are highly trainable and have their famous memories (‘an elephant never forgets’).

We drove for an hour out of Chiang Mai to reach the elephant camp. There we changed into denim ‘mahout’ clothes, not only to keep ours clean, but to protect both us and our clothes from the equally abrasive elephant skin and stiff bristly hair.

On the day we visited there were six guests including us and five elephants, one of which had a baby that was six months old. We each fed all of the elephants bananas and sugar cane to that would become familiar with us and like us (yes, they do remember you and the fact that you’ve fed them).

We then received a lot of information on the lifestyle of the elephants in the camp and their behaviour, before being given detailed training on how to ride an elephant. We were here not just to get a tourist ride on the back of an elephant, but to actually sit on the elephant’s neck and to direct it like a real mahout, so we needed to learn the basic commands to mount and dismount, go forward, stop, back up, and turn left and right. Riding an elephant is done with a combination of voice commands (in a mix of Thai and local hill tribe languages), foot and leg movements, and pressure from a small bamboo stick with a hook on the end. The hook is not used to hit or hurt the elephant, but to apply sufficient pressure so that the elephant can feel it (their skin is about 2 inches thick).

Here, in a nutshell, is how to steer an elephant. To go forward, say “Pie” while resting the stick across the top of the elephant’s head and squeezing with your legs behind its ears. To go backwards, say “Toy” with a rising pitch. To turn, hold the ear opposite to the direction you want to go with your hand and also hook the top of it and pull, then kick behind the other ear. And most importantly, to stop, say “How” while resting the hook in the indent in the middle of the top of the elephant’s giant head.

Equipped with our newfound knowledge, we each took turns getting on and off an elephant. In response to a verbal command the elephant raises its right leg which we step up on while holding on to the top of its right ear. Repeating the same command get the elephant to raise its leg higher, like an elevator to the vicinity of the head. From there you kind of fling yourself leg-first over its back, and then slide forward on the neck until your legs are tight behind each ear.
A key point is that even the smaller Indian elephant is way bigger than it appears from a distance, especially when you’re scaling it or perched on its neck! We each made some turns left and right and walked forward and back to get a feel for the ride.

After lunch our plan was to ride our elephants up and down a nearby mountain. We each rode our own elephant except one couple who shared (one riding on the neck and the other on the back). Given the opportunity to share, Patrick was impressed that Diane elected to ride her own elephant. Patrick was assigned the elephant with the 6-month old baby, which seemed a bit risky. Who knows what she would do if she lost sight of her baby or if something happened to it.

We rode out of the compound and started up the hill into the jungle with Diane leading the way. The path was very narrow, and cut diagonally across the steep hill, so the downhill side was very, very far down. Patrick’s elephant was apparently hungry and was eating anything that she could get her trunk on. Unfortunately the best food was on the downhill side, so she would turn sideways on the very narrow trail and reach out over the edge as far as she could. This while Patrick was teetering at least 10 feet above the drop off! She particularly enjoyed bananas and bamboo, and not just the leaves or branches. She ate a banana tree by ripping the entire thing right out of the ground with her trunk, then dragging it along until she could consume it all. She did the same with bamboo. The 20 foot long bamboo in her mouth made it difficult for her to walk down the narrow trail as it kept snagging on trees! During our walk she ate two entire banana trees and a small forest of bamboo. Despite this feeding frenzy, she was always looking out for her baby, who usually ran along in front, but did end up behind occasionally, causing Mom to turn around and look back with Patrick on her swinging head.

Despite their size, elephants are afraid of small things that move quickly. They can startle if they see a little animal or snake, and may run quickly. We were told that if our elephant decided to go on a rampage that we should stay on it as long as possible. It’s way too high to jump, plus there’s some risk of being trampled.

Considering their size, riding an elephant is surprisingly unstable. Because the shoulders alternately rise and fall (a considerable distance) with each step, its important to sit high on the neck, just behind the huge head. The ears are like cowboy chaps, protecting the legs from passing trees. Staying on is difficult, and Patrick almost came off a couple of times. He was determined to stay mounted because he’s fallen off both a horse and a camel recently, and if he fell off an elephant too that could appear to be a bit of a bit of trend and people might start to talk…

After surviving the steep descent from the mountain we walked along a road briefly, as cars drove by. We’re not sure who was more scared — the drivers of the cars going by, vehicles much smaller than our pachyderms, or us, praying that our elephants wouldn’t startle.

We walked down to the river, and quickly doffed our hats and cameras, because the elephants weren’t stopping and were looking forward to a bath. We rode down some stairs and straight into the water, and were told how to get the elephant to sit down. It involves reaching as far back as possible and smacking the elephant on the back (their ass is way too far out of reach). Hopefully they sit just long enough for us to jump off before they start rolling in the water and crushing us.

Elephants love the water. We splashed them and they sprayed us with their trunks. We had a water fight by pointing our elephant’s snouts at one another, pausing between blasts to reload by dunking them under the water. A water fight with 2 tonne squirt guns.

In the interest of self-preservation, we needed to constantly be aware of where the elephants were and what they were doing. We were standing in the midst of a tight pack of elephants that were standing, sitting, and rolling, and it would have been easy to get squished. At one point another elephant sat on the baby, who got trapped beneath the water, and started to thrash. Although she’s only an infant, she weighed at least 700 pounds — more than enough to cause some serious damage. It was also important to stay away from the murky water and giant elephant turds that would occasionally belch to the surface!

On the ride back, within sight of the camp, Diane’s elephant started to run for no particular reason. It may have startled because a coconut was rolling on the ground. Perhaps it just did what Diane does when she’s running, which is to speed up on the home stretch (within sight of the barn!) Diane hung on until it settled down again, yelling “Ho” to no effect (the stop command is “How”).

We had a fun day and a great experience at the ‘elephant training camp’. We think that’s a bit of misnomer though, because the elephants are already trained, and it’s the tourists that need the lessons!

Durga Puja

We spent most of last night wandering the streets of Calcutta. We had no idea
where we were or exactly where we were going. It was amazing.

We’re here during a major Indian festival called ‘Durga Puja’. It is celebrated in many places in India, but nowhere with the fervor of Calcutta. It is like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s Eve combined.

Durga Puja celebrates the triumph of the Hindu goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasur who had taken over heaven and earth. The three main Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (all male) were unable to defeat him individually so they combined their powers to create Durga. This strong female goddess has ten arms carrying the signature weapons of each of her creators and rides upon a lion. Durga was able to defeat Mahishasur restoring heaven to the gods and earth to humanity, and the festival Durga Puja celebrates this triumph of good over evil. In Calcutta it is also believed that Durga leaves the home of her husband Shiva (yes, this bad-ass chick is married) once a year to her parental abode. She appears for only a four day period during the festival to eradicate all evil from the earth, after which she returns to her husband’s abode at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.

People in Calcutta spend much of the year preparing for Durga Puja. Huge images of Durga and her children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartik) are prepared and placed in temporary structures called ‘pandals’ for public display during the period of festival. They are elaborate and beautiful, made primarily with painted clay over straw and bamboo.

The pandals that house them are the size of houses and both they and the streets around them are lit up with electric lights, often animated in displays superior to the best Christmas lights. The streets are full of vendors selling food and drink for the visitors and loud music is usually played about twenty hours a day. Neighborhood associations are generally responsible for putting the pandals together with the help of corporate sponsorships. They work all year, similar to the ‘crews’ of Mardi Gras. It is estimated that there are 2000 pandals throughout Calcutta, with many more across the state of West Bengal. On our trip to the Sunderbans we passed many of them in small villages.

People visit the pandals day and night during the festival. They’re open twenty four hours a day. The crowds are largest at night, when the pandals and streets are lit up. The most popular ones receive tens of thousands of visitors per day, filing past in huge lines. It is definitely a family event, and parents walk with or carry their children. The women seem to be wearing some of their finest clothes. Traffic comes to a virtual standstill and public transportation can be overwhelmed. The police are out in full force to control the pedestrians and vehicles. We don’t have anything quite so overwhelming in Canada. Perhaps if the Vancouver Canucks won the Stanley Cup on Halloween night it would come close. Although the idols are religious for Hindus, there is a definite party atmosphere and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly spiritual occasion. There is a lot of noise, children running around, and drunken men wandering the streets.

On the last evening of the festival, the idols are removed from the pandals, transported, and then carried into the river Hooghly and immersed. The idols are transported in trucks full of supporters cheering and dancing, then hoisted by groups of straining men to the river bank where there are spun around repeatedly before being carried into the river. Thousands of them float away into the darkness.

We visited about twenty pandals during the festival. Some were within walking distance of our guest house on our first night in Calcutta. It’s easy to find a pandal – just listen for the music, look for the lights, and follow the crowds. A couple of nights later, upon our return from the Sunderbans, we went ‘pandal hopping’ beginning at about 8 PM. We caught a cab to the south side of the city to see some of the most highly regarded pandals. All we had was their names on a scrap of paper. We started at Maddock Square and walked from there, reading the names of the places we wanted to get to, and asking people in the crowd to point us in the right direction. We walked for several miles through the streets, getting lost, then re-directed, then lost again. It was very hot, very humid, and very crowded.

We decided to head home at about 1 AM. We were both tired and Diane had a heat rash on her legs. The streets were still packed with people, as were the buses, but they were no help to us since we didn’t know where we were or which bus might take us where we wanted to go. We finally got a cab after about thirty minutes of trying, and made it back to our hotel at about 2 AM.

The next morning Diane was ill, perhaps overdoing it the night before, but she had sufficiently recovered by evening that we could walk down to the river to watch the immersions. The crowds were crazy, the drumming loud, and it wasn’t possible to get close to the water as the police were restricting anyone who wasn’t carrying an idol. We did get a few photos though.

Durga Puja was something that we’d heard about in Canada, and we’re so glad that we were able to be here when it took place. It was bit earlier this year than normal, usually occurring in October or November, so it worked out for us. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our trip to India.

On Toileting

Be aware that the following article is colourful, and may offend the sensibilities of the faint of heart. Or, you might just laugh your a** off.

As is the case with many travel epics, it has come to this, the point when the many exaltations of a grand journey are set aside temporarily, to focus on the simpler aspects of day-to-day living — sleeping, eating, and the subject of this article.

In addition to the many varieties of toilets we encounter, the complexities of their use are a regular topic of conversation among travelers. Here are some of the considerations.

Dirty toilets are very common. It’s quite common to hover or squat over filthy toilets while treading on urine soaked floors, even in the ladies room. You know that the floor isn’t clean when the Indian women roll up their skirts before entering to avoid them touching the ground. Patrick knows that it’s really bad when he can hear Diane dry heaving from next door.

A purse or bag is not an asset in these bathrooms, as there is nowhere to hang it. Because toilet paper is almost never provided, you need to bring that into the room discretely, and somehow manage to keep it off the floor during the whole procedure.

In most hotels, the whole bathroom is the shower. There is no tub, shower stall, or shower curtain. When the whole room gets wet it takes a long time to dry, so as a result, from the time we first use the shower the whole bathroom usally remains wet for the entire duration of our stay. So every time you go in to the bathroom your feet get wet, which is especially annoying if you’re going in the middle of the night and return to your bed afterwards. If instead you wear your shoes or sandals in, the floor turns into a swamp as the dirt from your shoes mixes with the water on the floor. The separate shower common in North America is definitely preferable.

We are often tested by cheap toilets that won’t flush with sufficient vigour as to get the job done. After several attempts, when confronted with a persistent floater, we’ve learned that you can fill a bucket and pour it into the bowl from a few feet above the rim. It works great.

The squat toilet is something that takes skill and experience to master. Not having the necessary flexibility requires a precarious balancing act on the balls of one’s feet. This is complicated by a slippery floor as you try not to pee on your feet. Lacking the necessary suppleness, stability must be augmented by touching something, but as minimally as possible. Diane prefers the one-handed water ski technique, while Patrick favours the two-armed elbow brace. The most sensitive part of the operation occurs when removing segments of toilet paper, as this normally requires two hands, making it a repetitive high-risk maneuver.

On a train, the difficulty level is further increased. Not only is everything stainless steel, wet, and at a minimum slick, but sometimes slimy, but the motion of the train makes balancing much more difficult. For some reason, the small bathrooms on the trains are exceedingly warm. Returning from the lou, it appears as if one has spent the last ten minutes doing squat-thrusts in a sauna. It often requires a cool drink and an extended period of recovery.

Another problem with train bathrooms is that you’re not supposed to go when the train is at a station, because everything just falls out onto the tracks below. It seems that more often than not, one just gets things moving when the train starts to slow. Some things can’t be stopped once started, so it would be helpful if all train restrooms were equipped with countdown timers until the next station. A good strategy is to only go in when you’re really good and ready.

Another challenge we face is the ‘pay and use toilet’. We find these everywhere, but especially in bus and train stations and sometimes in cities or parks. The concept is presumably that the small fee paid is used for the maintenance and cleaning of the facility. However, almost without exception, they are neither maintained nor clean. The attendant’s role seems be only fee collection. There is sometimes a mop in the vicinity, but usually in a dark, wet corner where it lays untouched. Even if it is used, it’s so dirty that it would just serve to spread the grime around. On a matter or principle, Diane refuses to pay at the ‘pay and use’ toilet unless they’re clean, and they’re never clean.

Every more perplexing is that there is often a difference in the fee depending on what kind of deposit you plan to make. For men this can be monitored by whether you use a urinal or toilet, but for women it appears to be strictly a matter of trust. Because it costs more, it is doubtful whether the women ever admit to anything more than a quick pee. Another problem is that you don’t always know in advance. Sometimes you’d like to keep your options open. And what if the anticipated result doesn’t materialize? Can you get your money back?

Some toilets in Africa and India are equipped with a metal bracket under the rear of the toilet seat that is connected by a tube to a separate tap on the wall. It appears to be a sharp piece of tin that is a cheap add-on. For months the usefulness of this device eluded us, and we were unwilling to risk putting it into practice. Eventually Patrick gave it a go. Through a tiny jet, it emits a horizontal stream of water so piercing that it could cut steel. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how calloused your sphincter is), because of its location below the seat, it doesn’t actually make contact when you’re seated. To experience its shocking effect, it appears to be necessary to lift the seat up, and then re-squat into the naked bowl. Small gyrations are then necessary to get coverage, but it is pretty important that this be done without making contact, requiring both strength and balance. Perhaps he was doing it wrong, but this certainly seemed to be an advanced and potentially risky maneuver given the cleanliness of the bowl and the razor sharp metal edge below.

Things are further complicated by the question of how to know when you’re finished? There is no tactile feedback as with the manual method. Should one stop based on feel, which would require greater sensitivity than we seem to possess, or is the exercise merely terminated after a reasonable time period. If so, how long? We may need further training to be able to maintain a squat for that time period.

Another issue is that the water emitted from this torture device is of unknown temperature and cleanliness. It would be nice to run it for awhile first, but this would result in a fountain as it ricochets off the front of the bowl. And what is one supposed to do in the meantime – stand up (ill advised), or maintain a parallel squat next to the bowl?

Unfortuantely our guidebook is silent on these topics.

Things we like about travel

In addition to the challenges associated with extended travel, there are a lot of terrific things also. We want to highlight some of these also, in case they’re not obvious from our stories, to keep things in perspective. So here they are in no particular order…

  • Spectacular locations – From the deserts of Jordan and the forests of Uganda to the plains of the Serengeti and the peaks of the Himalayas.
  • Amazing experiences – Many of these we’ve recounted in the blog, and others we’ll share when we return.
  • Meeting other travelers – We’ve met some interesting people along the way and made some friends.
  • Meeting local people – Opportunities for this are more limited than we’d like. We try to find opportunities for this whenever possible, like eating in the restaurants where locals eat, traveling on local transport, etc.
  • Interacting with the children – Diane has a lot of fun playing with local children who generally haven’t been conditioned to fear strangers like in North America.

  • Continuous summer – Since we’re traveling in hot countries, it’s always warm, except when we deliberately go to colder places. A by-product of this is that we spend more time outside in nature.
  • Accomplishment – We’re doing some things that we’ve wanted to do for a long time and achieving the things we choose for ourselves on this journey, all while overcoming the challenges associated with traveling independently in the Third World.
  • Learning about and experiencing rich and diverse cultures – We’ve learned a lot about the countries and the people where we’ve traveled, including their customs and religions, and also about the homelands of some other travelers.
  • The food – tasting the different cuisines, especially in India.

  • Things are so interesting – Every day is a new adventure. Even if we haven’t planned anything, every day is interesting. Just wandering the streets is usually fascinating.
  • Time to read, reflect, and plan – finding time for these can sometimes be difficult when things get busy at home. Although these should be a priority in our lives, they tend to get displaced with more urgent things.
  • The cost of things compared to Canada – We have the opportunity to see and do some amazing things at prices which, although high by local standards, are cheap by Canadian norms. Rooms in India are basic, but typically about $10 Canadian (C) per night. Food is also cheaper, and even a nice meal with seafood and beer costs about $10C for both of us. If we eat local food, the quality of which is generally very good in India, in a local restaurant, it can be as little as $2C for both of us.
  • Cheap beer – About $2-3C for 2 bottles, and we’ve heard it’s even cheaper in South-East Asia!
  • Life seems less complicated – We rely only on the possessions we carry on our backs. As a result, it’s not difficult to choose what to wear each day. There are very few commitments to keep, so we have great flexibility on how we spend our time.
  • No commuting – our day starts wherever we happen to be.
  • We walk every day – except when we choose not to.
  • We waste a lot less time watching television
  • Awareness – we’re more aware of our surroundings, and we take delight in the small things.
  • Being together – To be honest, before leaving home, we weren’t sure how we would handle being together 24×7. We’re pleased to say that things are going very well. We still have disagreements, but no more frequently than we did at home. We are closer now than before we left.
  • There is no grass to cut and someone else washes the dishes!

Travel Pet Peeves

As with any sustained and repetitive activity of reasonable complexity, traveling tends to have its minor annoyances. We prefer to look at these as challenges rather than problems, but they can become irritating, especially when our energy, and therefore tolerance, is low or our frustration level high. One of the biggest challenges with sustained traveling is to not become cynical. It is easy to develop a ‘been there done that’ attitude, and to become critical of things that we don’t have to deal with at home. We try hard not to do this, and instead try to maintain a positive attitude and find the humour in the day-to-day challenges we face. In that spirit, here are some of the things that we deal with on a regular basis in India, many of which we also experienced elsewhere.

  • Dirty toilets – We needn’t say more, but we will in a separate blog entry.
  • Hard beds — Some beds aren’t much more than mats on a board covered with a sheet. Diane actually said the other day that she thought she was finally getting used to hard beds, but took it back upon waking the following morning.
  • Harder pillows – Some pillows are blocks of hard foam or seem to be packed with old rags. We had some pillows last night that felt like they were filled with lead shot. Once molded into position with considerable effort, they would not change shape through any natural motion of the head or neck. Diane got up in the middle of the night to get her fleece jacket to sleep on instead.
  • Dirty linens – The sheets have usually been cleaned, but are usually grey and often stained with mysterious shades of various nondescript colours.
  • Old beds — We’ve heard about how mattresses and pillows are filled with pounds of dead skin cells and the dust mites who feed off them. We can’t imagine what’s living in some of these mattresses, and have gotten into the habit of not checking what’s under the sheets. So far, no bed bugs though.
  • Higher pricing for foreigners – Entrance fees to attractions (museums, forts, palaces, etc.) are typically 10 to 20 times higher for foreigners. We can tell from the guidebook that this has been in place at some sites for years and also that it continues to spread, as many places that didn’t have differential pricing a few years ago do now. That being said, the foreigner price is rarely higher than $5 US.
  • Fees for camera use – Most attractions charge a separate fee for the use of a camera, which can be as much or more than an entry ticket. Very few Indian people have cameras, so they don’t pay this fee, but they do have cell phones with cameras in them and with which they take pictures. So, in effect, this fee is primarily an increased charge for tourists.
  • Separate Tickets – Many large attractions, like in North America, charge separate fees for various parts of the exhibit, no doubt designed to increase their overall revenue.
  • Negotiating – Having to negotiate for nearly everything. Room rates, taxis, auto-rickshaws, souvenirs, and even the price of bottled water (which we need regularly). Vendors almost always try to extract more money than they charge Indian people. In some cases they have no shame in asking many, many times more than the object is worth, trying to ‘anchor’ (as behavioural economists call it) a very high point for the start of negotiations.
  • Begging – The constant requests for money from woman, children, the elderly, and the disabled (or combinations thereof) are draining.
  • Taxi drivers — who won’t turn on their meters for foreigners, requiring a much higher fare to be negotiated. They sometimes claim that the meter is broken, but often just flatly refuse to use the meter.
  • Touts (including rickshaw drivers who act like touts) – Men who make money by getting commissions in return for bringing tourists to shops or hotels. They are often unscrupulous, and will do almost anything to get you to go with them, for example:
    o Taking you to a hotel other than the one you’ve asked for
    o Stopping the rickshaw mid route and asking you to visit a shop.
    o Claiming that the hotel that you’ve requested is closed, full, or otherwise unavailable.
    o Telling you that the price at a certain hotel is lower than it is.
    o Claiming that they are somehow affiliated with a particular shop or hotel (e.g. I work there, my brother owns it, etc.)
    The reason for all these shenanigans is that the commissions paid by some places are quite high relative to the money that can be earned elsewhere or a rickshaw fare. In some places it seems like the rickshaw drivers are working primarily for commissions, and not as a means of public conveyance.
  • Shop owners – who constantly ask if we’ll “come see my shop”. We are polite and usually answer “no thank-you”, but it can get a bit tiring to say this twenty times in one a city block.
  • Mosquitoes – this one barely belongs on the list because, to be frank, the mosquitoes here are smaller and leave a smaller bite than those in Canada. The difference is that in most warm places they breed all year round, so we deal with them constantly. There is nothing more annoying than trying to sleep when you have mosquitoes buzzing around your ears and you haven’t bothered to put up the mosquito net. The disquieting thing is that the mosquitoes here are entirely more deadly than those at home, as carriers for malaria, dengue fever, Japanese B encephalitis, and other diseases.
  • Noise – the noise levels in India are much higher than at home, and in our experience, even much higher than in big North American cities like New York. The noises we find most challenging are:
    o Honking – both when walking or on transport. The buses have air horns so loud they almost certainly damage hearing and they blast them almost continuously (alerting pedestrians, scaring livestock, when overtaking, when driving through villages, when a slow vehicle doesn’t give way, when traffic slows or stops, etc.) Motorcycles also seem to beep constantly, partly out of self-preservation.
    o Dogs barking – there are feral dogs in a lot of places that like to bark or fight at night, especially in the early morning.
    o Loud Music – Many buses play loud music. It is often so loud that local people complain, and it’s never in English. It is usually played a couple of notches higher than the level at which the stereo system is capable of reproducing clear sound, so not only is it loud, but full of static.
    o Cell Phones – everyone seems to have a cell phone, but there doesn’t appear to be any etiquette regarding the volume of the ring tones, yelling into your phone to compete with the background noise, or playing music through the phone’s loudspeaker on the bus so that everyone else gets to listen to it.
  • Cutting in line – People here often cut in line. It’s understandable that in a land of scarcity with so many people that they would do this. The most frustrating is when people cut in line at the train station ticket window, which is often long slow queue. Another example is at bank machines, which in some places have long lines. What’s surprising is that other people seem to let them do this. When confronted, they usually back down, but then resort to slipperier tactics, like giving their bank card and pin to another person, or having a woman buy their train ticket in the women-only line. Boarding buses and the second class portion of trains is another challenge. There are usually more people than places, and people use various tactics to increase their chances of a seated journey, for example:
    o as the train pulls up, jump on board before it stops and push through the line of people waiting to disembark,
    o throw some of their belongings through the bus window onto an empty seat, and when all else fails,
    o push and shove to get on board first.

We hope that didn’t sound too negative. We take it all with a grain of salt, and these challenges are greatly outweighed by the benefits of traveling. These issues are quickly forgotten when we meet special people, are offered unsolicited assistance from a local person, or witness something amazing. They all contribute to the experience, and in part, help to make it interesting.

Doha First Class

On our flight from London to Mumbai on Qatar Airways, we had a short stopover in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. The airport is basically a transfer station for those flying elsewhere, but it had an amazing duty free shop selling both the full suite of luxury goods, and curiously, large bags of powdered milk which were a hot seller.

On the second leg of our journey, after some delays in check-in, we were given a complementary upgrade to first class, much to our surprise. Many others in line with us didn’t receive this. We wondered whether it was because we were only white people in economy. After an eternity spent in a bus waiting to board the plane in the evening heat, and being delivered to the rear entrance of the plane (when we were sitting in the very first row), we finally made it to our seats. Neither of us had flown first class before, and we were pleasantly surprised.

After selecting our before dinner cocktails (a bloody mary and a martini), we reviewed the menu to select our appetizers and entrées. We both had the trout pate, which was presented with a variety of accoutrements. Patrick had the fish and Diane the chicken. The meals were served by course on hot white china plates, with real metal cutlery (can’t first class passengers be hijackers too?), with a fine selection of mid-2000 vintage French wines.

After his second martini, Patrick was really enjoying himself. Especially the large screen individual audio visual system with a remote control and active headphones (which counteract any ambient noise by playing compensating frequencies). Unfortunately Diane’s screen wouldn’t work, but we both enjoyed the adjustable powered seats that had at least fifteen separate adjustments on a separate remote control.

Regrettably, this was only a three hour flight, the shorter portion of our journey from London, but it was a great way to get to India.