Wednesday, April 27, 2005

On the Nepal Side

April 23
The big screened windows that line two walls of our Bhairawa, Nepal room have turned the darkest blue-grey of dusk. We’re lit by a tall-flamed candle that the nice Nepalese man with the poor English brought up with our second Katmandu beer. There’s no power of course. There are five hours left in April 23—actually a little less since we moved watches ahead 15 minutes when crossing into Nepal—but already it’s one of the more remarkable days of the trip.

Christian and I boarded a train in Varanasi just past midnight this morning. It would take us to Gorakhpur, three hours from the Nepal border where we’d take a bus to the end of India, then take another bus into the heart of Nepal. It would be: six-hour train, three-hour bus, ten-hour bus. If all went as planned, as we knew it wouldn’t.

In the train we unpacked our packs, wiped down our sleeper births and padlocked our valuables to the provided chains. I changed into my pajama bottoms and we took pictures of each other making the steerage quality bunks into our home for the night.

The train pulled out and the conductor checked our tickets and let us know we were on the wrong train. We threw everything into our bags, frantically found our keys and unlocked our valuables and ran for the door to jump out of the accelerating train. This was an entertaining spectacle to our fellow passengers. The train door was locked. “It’s locked!” I shouted behind me. I went to try the door in the next car and Christian went to the door on the far side of our car. The door I tried was jammed too so I ran back towards Christian. When I reached the end of the car the door was open and Christian was gone. “Jump?” I asked into the darkness. “Jump,” I heard back.

So me and the 45 pounds of gear just barely contained in my two bags leapt from the wrong train and onto the cement platform. It was instantly recognized as one of the great moments of the trip. The lone casualty of the 45-second packing insanity seems to be my digital camera case. It is the smallest of small prices to pay.

We got on the right train and woke up around 7am and then had to catch a bus to the border. This was a hassle because everyone is trying to rip you off with an overpriced ticket. We got the correct 50 rupee ($1.20) ticket but only after burning almost an hour. We got to the border around noon and walked over to the Nepal side. The immigration people were pleasant and efficient despite warnings to the contrary.

On the Nepal side a little after 12:30pm we looked for a bus to make the 9-hour trip to Katmandu or Pokhara. We got caught up with some travel agency jive and missed the last day-bus we had any chance of catching (though we might have lost any real hope of catching it when we wasted that hour looking for the previous bus). The only buses left were leaving in the evening and because of the curfews in Nepal they would have to pull over and stop from 9pm until 3am. We would be stuck on the bus for 14 hours! Christian has a ridiculous four days to see Nepal and really wanted to get there tonight. We tried hiring a car to drive us but when we finally decided to bite the 2200-rupee bullet it was too late to get the car in time to beat the curfew. We tried hitching a ride with some sort of religious man dressed in orange who said he could get through the check-points without stopping for the curfew but he ended up getting on one of the buses.

So we’re here at the hotel across from the bus stand waiting for the 5am bus to take us to Pokhara and in the meantime we’re having Katmandu beer, two bottles of which cost as much as our room (US$3). Everything seems like it will be quite cheap. Everyone seems like they will be quite friendly. And when the near Civil War and the lack of power force us into our candlelit rooms as night falls, it’s nice to have a friendly Nepali with bad English to bring you mediocre local beer.

The Bus to Pokhara

April 25
The bus to Pokhara took ten hours. It was a pleasant enough minibus with 32 seats and about 50 people sitting. Christian said someone had a hen with them but I never saw or heard the bird. Some old women were sitting on the floor which made me feel bad but I’m sure they didn’t pay 290 rupees for the trip like we did so I didn’t feel too bad.

The blaring Nepalese music blowing through the speaker above my head was not Christian or my favorite part of the trip. There were probably about 15 or 20 government checkpoints spread across the 150 miles. The guards wear blue fatigues and carry carbines. When we reached the outskirts of Pokhara all the men of fighting age had to get off the bus and walk across a checkpoint on foot for 100 yards. Christian and I were able to stay on the bus. In contrast to India where white skin just makes you a tout target, being a foreigner in Nepal seems like it has a lot of perks. There’s an 11pm curfew in Pokhara but last night our waiter at the Maya Café told us “It’s only for us, for the Nepalese. You can stay out as late as you like, enjoy yourself.”

Krishna, the 25 year old bookstore owner I spoke with today said, “Life is like chocolate box,” when I told him I was traveling for a year. He hadn’t heard of the movie the reference was from but he took the meaning well. “It’s like chocolates for you,” he said. “For us it’s like we live in a cage.” I asked, leadingly, what the difference was between America and Nepal. “It the difference between the sky and the earth,” he said.

Nepal is in the midst of two years of significant civil strife as Maoist forces are held in check by an increasingly restrictive monarchy. A couple months ago the King fired a bunch of democratically elected officials. Krishna didn’t like that at all but said he thought most of the democratic politicians were crooks anyway. He didn’t fully blame (or credit) the King for the action either, saying he thought someone else was using “a remote control” to influence Nepal. He thought India was most likely to blame but the U.S. and England “are too curious about Nepal too.”

Krishna works in Pokhara where the tourists are. His family is still back in the countryside and he visits them every three or four months. It’s just too expensive to life in Pokhara, he told me. I’m typing this in a guesthouse with big windows, a good bed, and a private bathroom. They brought me a desk to work on and outside my room is a sunny porch. With little negotiation I got the room for $2.15 a night. But Krishna can’t afford to bring his family to live here and that sure makes you feel like you have a lot of chocolate smeared all over your face.

The Daily Hurricane

April 26
If you and your watch get confused in Nepal—which is easy since the clocks here are set 15 minutes apart from the time zones used by the rest of the world—you can determine the time by noting when the daily hurricane roles in.

At 4:15pm the clear, bright sky clouds over to a slate grey. If you miss this moment to synchronize your watch you can wait until 4:30pm. At that time the gale force winds come to bend the trees and send the shopkeepers scurrying to collect the placards outside their shops. At 4:35pm any uncollected placards can be found crashing to the ground, and all the signs here show the wear of countless afternoon dustups.

The rain will come at a quarter to five. It might come in big, steady drops or road-swallowing sheets but either way it won’t last long, provided the wind keeps blowing the clouds through. This isn’t the monsoon season, it’s just the daily hurricane-like storm season.

At five the town looks deserted with all the storefronts covered by their metal roll-down security screens. It gets quite dark because when the clouds blot out the sun, the power company kills the lights for fear the power lines will be damaged by the storm.

By 6:30pm the sky is cleared and the sun is all but gone and just as the night sinks in the power comes back. If you’ve ever been in a hurricane where the leaves blew off the trees but the branches stayed put you know what it’s like each afternoon in Pokhara, Nepal. No one tapes their windows or buys eggs and bottled water. They don’t go down into their basement to wait it out. But they bring in the placards off the street or watch them sail down the sidewalk with the wind.

About Me

April 27
Yesterday I read About a Boy, the Nick Hornby book where Hugh Grant floats around life without any responsibility or care. It occurred to me my life in not dissimilar. For one, I was able to read a whole book in one day while lounging about. I’ve gone years of my life without finishing a book.

I am doing something, I know. Traveling around the world is by no means a waste of time but as I mentioned a couple entries ago it does make you feel like a spoiled brat to fill your days with coffee shops and sleeper trains when the people around you are trying to scrape out sustenance and shelter.

Grant’s character says something in the middle pages about not knowing how working people have time for a job and a life when he fills his days just with the life part. That’s the situation I’m in too and the life part now seems like my job. I take long bus rides. I take walks. I talk to people in cafes or shops. I rent a boat with a friend and paddle around the lake for an hour. It’s a good gig, no doubt.

The thing about this kind of job is at the end of the year instead of saving up some money you’ve spent everything you have. If I went home now I would have four months of memories and eighteen thousand dollars. If I continue with the trip I’ll have twelve months of memories and just enough for first and last month’s rent. I don’t plan on going home but it strikes me that I could get out while I’m ahead.

I do sort of have a job and that’s making the documentary. It’s really nice to have something to pour energy into when I need to. If the documentary is good and I sell it (or even if it’s bad and I sell it) then the year can be seen as a wonderful coup where I took a 50-week vacation and still managed to advance myself financially and professionally. If the movie fails then I will be broke and all the equipment I carried and time I spent on the documentary will be a colossal waste.

Two feelings hang in the air for me: 1) I’m doing the most amazing thing I’ll ever do and at the same time I’m going nothing and 2) this could be my greatest success or my worst failure. It would be a pretty okay failure, all things considered, but that’s how I feel sometimes.

Now I’ll walk down the street to the café with the $.85 breakfast, drop off my laundry, check out the CD store, maybe rent a bike, and then pack up for my six-day Jomsom trail trek around the Himalayas. Cry not for me.

Monday, April 25, 2005


Like the beginning of my trip back in Australia, my time in India has been too overwhelming to sum up in a couple simple stories. What I’ve done, like I did for those early days is give a sketch of each day. Additionally, there are three more lengthy entries that follow. The first, An Indian Warning, is about arriving in Delhi. The second is The Delhi Tour; and the third, Three Days We Ran Together is a detailed account of April 18 to 20 when Christian and I cruised through Jaipur, Agra, Allahabad, and Varanasi without staying anywhere overnight.

Also new, The Greatest Holiday, my final entry from Thailand. It’s a lot to read and you may want to break it up over a couple days.

April 13
After splashing some songkran water in Bangkok, take a taxi with Erika to airport and fly to Delhi where I stay with Akshay’s relatives. (See entry: An Indian Warning).

April 14
Delhi tour. (See entry: The Delhi Tour).

April 15
Go into Delhi for afternoon and shoot video in Old Delhi. Every time I bring the camera out I’m approached by curious people within ten seconds and surrounded within a minute or so. This repeats itself everywhere in India but never happened anywhere else I’ve been.

I brave a food stand in Old Delhi and order “a plate.” I think people at places like this are generally flattered that foreigners want to try their food, which is a rarity. The plate has three dishes (something with lentils, something with potatoes, and dahl) and chapati (a flat bread). When you finish eating here they just re-fill your plate until you tell them to stop. After several refills they charge me 20 rupees ($.45).

I buy a very expensive plane ticket ($450) from Delhi to Cambodia for May 8 when I’ll meet NYC Jason.

April 16
“You’ve seen everything in Delhi” Manu tells me, perhaps inviting me to move on. I take the bus south to Jaipur where I’m told it will be hotter. Hotter? Jaipur has more of a small town vibe (only 3 million people) and it feels more like “India.” The women are dressed in traditional technicolor outfits. Camels, yaks, horses, and the occasional elephant trot down the roads.

I stay with more of Akshay’s relatives and have more nice food and home atmosphere. The two-year-old son of the Saxena family is terribly cute. He calls me “bayhia” which means brother and when I play my Ipod for him he dances and says, “gana, gana.” Song, song.

April 17
I take a bus tour in Jaipur. I’m the only non-Indian again but they do the tour in English which is a bit strange but helpful. During lunch I meet Christian, a 20-year-old German who is in India for a month. He’s on a break from a 10-month teaching assignment in Sri Lanka.

We decide to meet for lunch the next day and possibly travel on together.

April 18
Meet-up with Christian and take night bus from Jaipur to Agra (aka Taj Majal).

April 19
Visit Taj, then take night train from Agra to Allahabad.

April 20
In Allahabad we impose on a family and visit an elementary school before a trying visit to the sacred sangam. Take evening bus to shady Varanasi.
(see entry: Three Days We Ran Together for April 18-20)

An Indian Warning

April 14
In the cab to the airport to go to India, Erika told me what I should expect. She’d spent three months there before coming to Thailand. “Delhi is dirty, it’s hot, there’s traffic everywhere, the air is just grey and thick with smoke.”

“Sounds like Bangkok,” I said.

“Oh no,” Erika explained. “Compared to Delhi, Bangkok seems like Paris.”

Lodging would be a problem. “Everything’s just…dirty,” she said. “Bedbugs, mosquitoes, pretty much all the places are just dirty.”

Eating would be a problem. “Oh yeah, you have to be very careful. You can’t eat anything off the street.”

Crime would be a problem. “I don’t use my Ipod in public,” Erika said.

Travel would be a problem. “Trains just stop. I was on a train going south and then it just stopped. We all got off and then the next day another train came and took us the rest of the way,” Erika said. “When trains are 10 or 12 hours late no one is surprised or upset. ‘That’s just India.’”

Heat would be a problem. “Right now it’s about 40 degrees,” she said. When they say it’s 40 on 1010WINS, that means it’s a cool April morning. Forty degrees centigrade will fry an egg on the Delhi streets, but you shouldn’t eat eggs off the street here anyway.

“So why would anyone want to go to India?” I asked just before we boarded the plane and just after she had described the gut wrenching poverty and migraine inducing touts.

“It’s just so…alive.”

Even before the plane lands you get a sense you’re going somewhere magical or horrid or (since the plane hasn’t landed yet maybe it’s best to avoid value judgments and just say,) different. As we approached Delhi I looked out the window and onto the various neighborhoods that make up the city of 13 million. I’ve looked out a lot of plane windows onto a lot of cities but never at the moment I gazed down onto the streets have I seen an entire corner of a city lose power and become a black triangle of darkness. I’d come to learn it was a fairly regular occurrence.

Flight attendants around the world are known to announce the current time when a plane touches down after crossing time zones. But nowhere else do they do it quite like this. Watches set to Bangkok time must be changed from 10:20pm to 8:50pm…India’s clocks are set a half hour apart from everyone else’s.

Outside Delhi International Airport the taxi drivers were waiting. They offered their service spiritedly but not intimidatingly. It was less of a madhouse than I expected, though certainly a mad house. (In a strange way I came to compare Delhi to Byron Bay, Australia, that beach paradise that couldn’t live up to the endless stream of great things I heard about it. When you expect something overwhelming, you’re never overwhelmed; nothing could be as hot or insane as the Delhi of description.)

I did what you’re supposed to do and bought a pre-paid taxi. I was going to Noida, a Delhi suburb. My friend from home, Akshay, still has family in India and they were graciously putting me up.

The taxi driver invited me up into the front seat for the hour-long ride. Traffic in India is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s congested but there aren’t awful traffic jams because of their unique system of driving. There are no lanes. The road could be the width of a four-lane lane highway but there are none of those broken white lines you’ve probably seen, umm, everywhere else in the world. So the big belching trucks, the chugging auto-rickshaws, the sputtering cars, and the cruising bikes (both motorized and peddled) all weave through each other in their own improvised dance. To pass, you honk your horn until the cars in front of you split enough for you to fit through. Honking is actually encouraged here, all big trucks have a large, artistic, English message scrawled on the back: “PLEASE HONK.” If your horn isn’t working I suppose you can just tap on the neighboring car, after all we are in arm’s reach of another vehicle for virtually the entire hour-long trip.

Have I mentioned there’s various cattle just walking along the side of the road?

I remember back to the entry I wrote a couple weeks ago talking tough about Thailand and being “inoculated by the motorbike taxis” etc etc. Certainly things here are more extreme, but I’ll stick to what I said: An inoculation gives you a little bit of a disease to protect you from becoming ill from a large portion of it and that’s exactly what Thailand (and the other countries I’ve visited) have done. If India was my first stop I would surely still survive but I doubt I would take it all very well.

The combination of three month’s travel experience and a string of Indian warnings seem to have dulled the impact of this amazing, challenging place. I also wonder if I’m bottling the apprehension/fear/concern/awe I might otherwise feel as a defense mechanism against freaking out.

So after a while we reach Sector 37 of Noida and it’s the right house and the Singhs are impossibly friendly. Shilpi, Akshay’s second cousin, makes me a grilled cheese sandwich and asks about my trip. Her little boys (two and five I’d guess) have been waiting up to see me. My room has a comfy bed and a fan. The lack of A/C isn’t a problem because it’s quite pleasant. In the morning I’ll go with Manu, Shilpi’s husband, into Delhi.

The Delhi Tour

April 14
In Delhi, just below Manu’s office, a guy is sitting at a desk selling tickets. The sign behind him is in Hindi but Manu says I can get on a city tour here for 100 Rupees (US$2.25). First there is the small matter of buying a ticket. The highway isn’t the only place where India eschews the idea of forming a line, rather the style of driving is a single symptom of a culture of mini-mosh pits. Though there are only three or four people waiting to buy bus tour tickets we jockey for the teller’s attention and finally he takes our 100 Rupees and I get my bus ticket.

“He’s going to try and get you a seat in front with the big window,” Manu says after we buy the ticket. “I didn’t even ask, he just offered. That’s Indian hospitality.” I’m learning that people everywhere take great pride in proving what great hosts they are; in every country there’s a small number of people hoping to swindle you but everyone else is almost always helpful.

“The tour is in Hindi,” Manu mentions, “Is that okay?” Sure.

I am the only non-Indian, the only non-Hindi speaker, the only white guy on the bus. (And though it’s a country of 1 billion and the temperature is over 100 degrees I am the only person in India wearing shorts. This is not really an exaggeration.) The bus does not have air-conditioning or an English translation. It will be an adventure.

Our first stop is the Red Fort, one of the major Delhi tourist destinations. The bus pulls over on the side of a six-lane road (okay there aren’t lanes but it’s six lanes wide) and drops us off. “We have an hour here,” my seatmate Janeel translates. The tour guide has offered to translate for me when possible. On the walk from the bus to the Red Fort he grabs me hard by the arm and looks up at me wild-eyed like he’s about to tell me where the bomb is planted or who shot the judge. “Red Fort was built in 1639!” he shouts at me. “It was finished in 1648! It took nine years to complete!”

We approach the Fort and he explains the admission policy to the group. “It’s five Rupees to enter,” he says. “And 100 Rupees for foreigners.” Or in our case, foreigner.

Red Fort was built as the new home of the Mughal empire when they moved their capital from Agra (home of the Taj Majal). It housed Indian troops until just 18 months ago.

Throughout the nine-hour tour we were told (at elevated volumes) countless facts, tidbits, and anecdotes concerning Indian history. I can tell you none of them because I didn’t understand a word. Once in a while Janeel would tap me and tell me what we were all looking out the window at. At Gandhi’s tomb Janeel somehow got lost and didn’t make it back on the bus. After that, without translation, I spent the time between stops working on my crossword book.

There was plenty of time to work on the crosswords because there was a lot of driving. Delhi suffers from miserable urban sprawl, though I suspect the seeds of the problem were planted long before folks in L.A. or Houston coined the term. From north to south the city is about 15 miles, it’s a little less east to west. Manhattan is 12 miles north to south but the comparison fails. If you’re visiting New York you can go to Macy’s on 34th St, walk up Broadway through Times Square and reach Central Park all within 1.5 miles. You’ve seen a good chunk of New York. In Delhi there’s no central place to go and see the city, it’s all spread out. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There’s no there, there.”

Anyway, enough of the temples and forts it’s time to ride the subway! Around noon with the temperature around 100 the guide ingeniously killed an hour by having us ride on the air-conditioned subway. Delhi has a gleaming, modern, empty subway system that’s about five years old. Our group of 45 bought our seven rupee tokens and headed for the train, but not before a lengthy explanation of how to use the tokens.

The tour group was made up of Indians from other parts of the country and for many of them riding the subway was the most exciting part of the day. It is a certain kind of cultural encounter to be doing something as mundane as riding an escalator and watch as a busload of people ride an escalator for the first time. Mounting and dismounting the moving stairs was a point of great anxiety.

After riding the train for three stops we got off, exited the station, bought new seven rupee tokens and got back on the train to return to where we started and get back on the bus. At least we had cooled off.

By now I had made friends with Rahul, who was in Delhi to interview for M.B.A. programs. Later that day he’d take the 35-hour train ride back home but he hoped to go to school here. “Delhi is the city of opportunity,” he said.

Next we stopped at Qutb Minar (“India’s Eiffel Tower”), where there were a bunch of food stalls. This was our chance to get lunch. Rahul and I walked over to the food but Rahul only wanted a mango lassi. “I’m not going to eat lunch,” he said. He didn’t trust the food here and if he couldn’t eat it I probably shouldn’t either.

Ultimately I ventured for a samosa which they served with way too much rice. “Should I eat with my hands?” I asked Rahul, since everyone else was eating with their hands.

“It’s up to you,” he said diplomatically and unhelpfully.

“What would you do?”

“God gave us only our hands,” he said.

So I broke off pieces of samosa and grabbed some rice and shoved it in. I didn’t get sick. I did get overcharged though.

We saw more forts and temples and Rahul told me where I should take my shoes off and what the meaning of the different temples were and then we had a Pepsi in a glass bottle as the sun went down and they dropped us back where we started.

I found a bookshop with a Lonely Planet for India and happily paid 850 rupees for it. Some English guidance will be nice.

Three Days We Ran Together

April 18
I meet Christian for lunch, my first real restaurant meal in India. Somehow I spend 200 rupees ($4.75) which is lot. I want to go south or east, Christian wants to go north or east, so we decide to head east together.

At the Jaipur train station there are a thousand people waiting for tickets. Thankfully we can get in the line for Tourists/Senior Citizens/Handicapped/Freedom Fighters. (No, we don’t know who Freedom Fighters are). There are about four people in front of us in line and it takes a little less than an hour to get to the window. The train is full but we get on the wait list.

In the meantime we walk around the markets. The touts are well concentrated here. Out of nowhere a bike pulls up with a 17-year old guy on it. “Why don’t tourists talk to Indians?” he asks.

“Well I think they don’t talk to Indians because sometimes it seems like everyone who talks to you wants something from you.” He gets off the bike as I start to answer.

“You think we’re all beggars,” he says. “We go to school all day and then in the afternoon our only way to practice English is to talk to the Europeans but they won’t talk to us. Why won’t you talk to us?”

“Well I’m talking to you right now so you can’t say I won’t talk to you.”

“I have a friend in Europe and I want to write him a letter but I don’t know how to write in English, will you write it in English for me?”

“Do you have the letter?”

“It’s up in that building. We’ll go up there and you can write it.”

I start to question the whole thing. “Sorry, I can’t. If you had it here I would but I can’t go up there.”

“Every time the Europeans say ‘Oh, I’m too busy, I have to go, I can’t help you.’ It would only take a minute.” He gets back on the bike with his friends. “You should go back to your country and leave India.”

Then as Christian and I walk down the street his friends on the bike follow us for a long time and ask us to go up to the same building that had the letter to translate. It has a great view, they tell us, you can see the whole city. And maybe it has a jewelry store we can look at too.

I come to learn the central problem of visiting India is how de-humanizing it becomes. In a vicious cycle the tourists treat the Indians badly and locals treat the tourists badly. They aren’t people, they’re just voices trying to sell you things or wallets with a lot more money in them than your life savings. There’s no getting around this conflict and it makes meaningful interaction rare and difficult.

After a couple hours in the markets we go back to the train station and learn we didn’t get tickets for the train. We walk a mile-plus to the bus station and buy tickets to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

I say goodbye to the Saxena family and meet Christian for our 11pm bus. The “luxury” buses here lack toilets which is a problem for Christian who is having some trouble with his stomach. “Trouble with his stomach,” is such a nice way to put it. Other than one day of feeling a bit achy, I haven’t had any trouble eating street food or drinking things with ice or brushing my teeth with the water or any of the other things that super concerned travelers avoid.

April 19
The bus gets into Agra around 5am and we head to the Taj Mahal. We get there just in time for sunrise. The entrance fee is 20 rupees. Or, if you’re a foreigner it’s 750. Yikes. They know you’ll pay and you do and it’s worth it. We take about a hundred pictures of each other and then finally go look at the thing. It is impressive, remarkably symmetrical and surprisingly small in the central room under the dome where the King and Queen’s tombs are. My favorite place is under the dome, about 10 feet behind the tombs. You can look back out the door and through the various gates that lead to the main building; everything lines up perfectly all the way to the horizon half a mile away.

Three hours is enough of that and since there isn’t much in Agra after the Taj we start looking for a train ticket. We find a “part-time travel agent” who says he can find out if there are seats available if we go to his office. When we refuse to go there he says he can make a call from “his jewelry store.” So we go there and he makes some calls and says we can’t get on the 8:30pm train but there are seats on the 11:30pm. He doesn’t know how much the ticket will be but he’ll charge us a flat 75-rupee commission regardless. We have a lot of trouble knowing whether to trust him. He says the train is booked (which is likely) but through a special agent he can get us tickets (somewhat less likely). We give him 200 rupees each and are told to come back at 1pm to get our tickets and pay the balance. It seems shady but at the end of the day it’s only $5 and the other choice is an excruciating hunt around town to the train and bus stations.

We return at 2pm and the shop is closed; supposedly the guy is at Mosque. We return at 3pm, this time with the video camera. I figure if we don’t get the tickets we’ll at least get a cool segment for the documentary. Christian and I are playing everyone’s favorite Indian travel game: “Scam or Not a Scam.” This time the guy isn’t there but another guy is in the shop and after leaving to make a phone call he says the “part time travel agent” is picking up the tickets and we should come back at 4pm. It’s impossible to say if bringing the camera to the shop helped produce the tickets but at 4pm the tickets were there. With commission we pay 281 rupees each which was a bit high but pretty reasonable given the short notice.

The guy is very offended that we would think he was scamming us.

We sleep in transit for a second straight night, this time in the sleeper class of the train. Imagine what you think the sleeper class of an Indian train might look like and that’s what it looks like. If you’re imagining chickens in the isles you’ve gone too far. Have you ever taken a tour of a submarine and they show you the stacks of tiny beds the sailors sleep on? That’s kind of what it’s like.

The best part of the “part time travel agent’s” arrangements for us was that we got to change trains at 4am. It wasn’t clear if we actually had seats on the second train and everyone we showed our tickets to got these confused looks on their faces, then laughed a bit. “I’m suspicious of your ticket,” a seatmate told us. “It is good for this train but for the second train you should re-confirm. You may have to buy a second ticket.”

An Indian train station at 4am is a certain thing. The floors are covered with people sleeping. It’s predawn. You don’t know where your train is or if you have the right ticket to get on it. You’re still in your pajama pants as you walk through the station getting shouted at by touts.

The guy at the info desk offers to sell you “supplemental tickets” for the connection train for 20 rupees each. That seems like a scam too.

So we get on the second train and take the same seats we had for the first train even though we know this is wishful thinking. Eventually the conductor checks our tickets and says they aren’t confirmed. We play dumb and he lets us share a seat (instead of the sleeper births we were supposed to have).

April 20
At 8am we pull into Allahabad. More than any other day of the trip, this day encapsulated the good and bad that makes India what it is.

Christian has a friend who has a friend who lives here and he called up the night before to say we’d be coming in around 6am. “Okay, I’ll pick you up at the train station,” the stranger said. We called a little after 5am to tell him we’d really be there at 8am. He didn’t seem to mind.

“The lawyer,” as we came to call him because we forgot his name, drove us to his home and served us breakfast. We’d leave our bags at his house for the day while we explored Allahabad then pick them up in the evening before getting on another bus.

His wife insisted on serving us breakfast. She was about 25 and he was about 35. They have a one-year-old daughter. You forget most Indian couples are products of arranged marriages because they seem like happy, normal families. This pair reminded me they were arranged. It seemed more like a business relationship than a personal one.

There’s a growing trend of “love marriages” here now. It’s still a somewhat exotic concept but Muhammad, my 20-year-old auto-rickshaw driver in Jaipur told me he had a girlfriend of two years who he planned to marry. Erika, the girl I flew here with, said her and her boyfriend are constantly approached on the street with the question “Love marriage?”

Christian and I left the lawyers house for one of the more bizarre encounters of my trip. Christian’s reason for coming to Allahabad was to visit a “Trees for Life” school here. Trees for Life is a volunteer educational organization that he worked for a couple years ago. He wanted to see their program here. Turns out the school wasn’t really a part of Trees for Life but we were committed to going by this point.

We walked into the courtyard of the school and a guard called us over and offered us chairs. Then he took us into the principal’s office and Christian said he had worked for Trees for Life and would like a tour. So they brought us around the mostly girls elementary school and we got stared at a lot. Everyone was wearing white shirts under powder blue dresses. When the principal walked into a class all the students would stand up at attention, giggle, look or point at us, then be told to sit down. I tried extremely hard not to laugh and did my best to ask interested questions. It was interesting.

We took an auto-rickshaw into City Lines, the main town here. It’s funny to use words like town to describe a place with a million people but the numbers are all so large here that a place with a million residents doesn’t feel so big.

It was damn hot. You know in the summer when you park your car in the sun with all the windows rolled up and then a couple hours later you get back in? That’s how it felt today. It felt exactly like that except you didn’t burn your butt on the seat. Christian and I were eating mangoes at a stand in City Lines when a building caught on fire. It was right across the street and the flames were pouring out of the porch area of the second floor apartment. Big fireballs would flare up now and then. Eventually it went out.

We asked a bookshop owner for a good, cheap place to eat and he came up with a recommendation. Instead of giving directions he sent a guide with us. There is so much cheap service labor here that people are constantly being used for things that don’t really require people. So the bookshop owner sent an employee to walk us five minutes down the street to a little hole in the wall restaurant.

There were lots of looks and laughs as we sat down. At places like this there generally isn’t a menu and you just order “a plate.” This ran counter to Christian’s celebrity-style ordering habits which call for substitutions or off-menu ordering even when the waiter speaks little English. The meals were good and cost 20 rupees.

It was around this time that India got annoying. It’s not the heat, or the hassling touts, or the risk of fraud that makes India so difficult. It’s the totally unrelenting nature of all these things. It’s hot every damn minute. There is always, always, always someone shouting “Where do you go? Auto-rickshaw! Take a look. Sir? Sir? Auto-rickshaw. Where you going? Come here sir. Take a look!” You want to relax and you can’t.

We couldn’t find an auto-rickshaw so we settled for bike rickshaws. They’re man-powered bicycles with little carriages in back. Christian and I each took our own to reduce weight and spread the wealth. The price was 10 rupees. The half-hour ride was an adventure. It is serious manual work to peddle that thing in the heat across town and my driver wasn’t a young man.

We reached sangam, the sacred confluence of the Ganges and Yumana rivers where in a single day (each January or February) 10 million pilgrims flood the meeting point. The rickshaw drivers refused our 10 rupee notes and the one English speaker in the encircling group explained they were demanding 60 rupees each. There was much shouting about where we had started the trip and what the agreed price was and eventually we agreed to 15 rupees each. We needed to pay with a 50 rupee note but my driver didn’t produce the agreed upon change so our only recourse was not to pay the other driver, forcing him to get his money from my guy. So they got 25 each instead of ten.

“They cheated you,” the English speaker said as he followed us, uninvited, towards the rivers. At sangam there were about two hundred boats waiting to carry tourists out to where the rivers meet. There were two tourists. One problem with traveling in low season is there are fewer fellow tourists but the same number of locals hoping to earn a living off the tourists. You don’t count how many times people offer you a boat trip during the 15 minute walk but if you did it would be around a hundred and feel like much more.

At the river people were bathing and out in the distance where all the boats were crowded I could kind of see the murky Ganges meeting the clearer Yumana. I met Vikteen, a middle-aged man, at the river. “What country?” he asked, in the traditional greeting of a foreigner.

“USA,” I said.

He lived in Allahabad and was a doctor. Many of his classmates moved to the US to practice medicine but he liked it better here. I asked him how often he came to sangam. “Once or twice a year,” he said. “How often do you go to Central Park?”

“I live one block from Central Park so I go there all the time.”

“Well then how often do you go to the Statue of Liberty. Not see it on TV or the movies but go there and see it.”

“Very rarely. I’ve only been to the actual Statue once.”

“Well it is the same. When you live very close to a place you don’t go often, it becomes normal to you.”

Vikteen explained that 50 years ago the pilgrims would march up to 500 kilometers on foot for the big festival here. They’d make a single-file line that stretched all the way from the river down to the south of the country. Now everyone drives and the banks on the far side serve as a parking lot.

Christian and I walked back to where the rickshaws were and the English speaker was still following us. We asked him to leave us alone but he wouldn’t. Eventually we negotiated the ride from 100 to 40 rupees and headed back to the lawyer’s house. When he dropped us off the driver asked for more money (they always do) but we wouldn’t give him the 50-rupee note until he produced the 10 rupees in change. Lesson learned.

We get on another evening bus for Varanasi, one of the most holy places in Hinduism. It leaves at 7pm and arrives around 10:30pm. It’s a local-style bus filled with commuters, some of them standing. The seats are less than shoulder-width wide. Sometimes you step back from the situation and realize you’re in one of the more remote, adventurous travel situations the world offers but it feels less exotic than you’d think. “Yeah,” Christian agreed as we sat at the Ganges earlier that day. “You think it should feel different and it will be like a different world but you realize how much the same it is, how small the world is.”

It feels exotic enough in Varanasi, where the Lonely Planet informs “two or three travelers go missing in the city every three or four months.” Apparently they’re abducted from the airport/train station/bus station. So we take our 11pm auto-rickshaw through the empty streets to Assi Ghat. We can’t tell the rickshaw driver where we’re staying because then he’ll get a commission from the guesthouse and the cost will be passed on to us. So we get off in the middle of the neighborhood and try to find out where the Sahi River View Guest House is while the auto-rickshaw driver keeps following us. Eventually we find it up a long, dark, scary ally and ring the buzzer. A sleeping guard/receptionist unlocks the doors and lets us in. It’s the first night in a bed since Jaipur.

The Fires In Varanasi

April 21
When the smoke rises in the distance from the banks of the Ganges you know what’s on the fire. The pyres run all day and all night where the river meets the ghats that line it’s western bank. They burn Hindu bodies still damp with the river’s water, and how long it takes for the contents of the cloths sacks to turn to ash depends on how big the fire is. How big the fire is depends on how much wood you can afford.

Christian and I walked along the Ganges at sunset tonight, heading north from our guesthouse at Assi Gaht. The gahts are basically steps that rise up from the river until they reach the two or three story buildings that line the area just up from the river. The guidebook lists about 30 gahts but when you start walking you realize there must be a hundred. You walk from one set of steps to the next as far as the eye can see.

When you reach one of the burning ghats (most have much more pedestrian uses like bathing or sells crap to tourists) it is arresting. There are five fires burning in a small area and workers are tending the flames as they engulf their bodies just a few steps from the river. On the raised area above, a hundred people are watching the scene. A male relative of the deceased is supposed to stay for the couple hours it takes for cremation to finish. The cost ranges from $50 to $125 (an “electrical” cremation is $12). There are two piles of ash five feet high. There are two bamboo stretchers with covered bodies waiting their turn. There is a dog finishing the job the fires started. It is tearing at cloth (or is that hair?) covered flesh. You can see the bloody red color of it.

“The dog eats meat, human meat,” a man watching with us says. “It is the circle of life.”

You don’t want to use judgmental words like ‘gross,’ so you settle for an understated “That’s intense.”

You keep walking as the sun keeps going down and after a million people ask you to buy postcards, boat trips, and massages you find a place for dinner. Then the power goes out and whole city turns black.

After dinner on the roof overlooking the darkened river you’ll walk up the tiny sidestreets dodging cows and bicycles and lit only by candles and passing motorcycles. You’ll take a rickshaw back to your guesthouse and refuse the customary demand to alter the agreed upon price. The city will still be dark except the candles and the few places with generators and the fires on the river that glow brightest when the rest of the city is black. They’ll burn all night and be waiting when you visit them again at dawn.

The Greatest Holiday

April 15, 2005
Don’t be jealous of the children of Thailand. Remind yourself they live in widespread poverty, remember how much you like Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. Don’t hate them because they have the greatest holiday in the history of the world and you don’t.

Songkran comes to Thailand at about this time each April to usher in the New Year. If you think fireworks, alcohol, Dick Clark, and freezing your ass off is a good formula, try this: a giant, all-inclusive, nationwide water fight. And it lasts three days.

Actually it can be more like a week. The official celebration was April 13-15 but on the evening of the 10th I was strolling through Chiang Mai with my video camera when I came upon ten kids (ages three to nine, I’d say). They were on the sidewalk between the mote and the main road and they had bucks on strings. They would dip their bucket into the mote, pull it back up full and dump it all out onto each other. Or, better yet, they’d wait for someone on a motorcycle to come by and hurl the water at them. Genius.

I walked a little further down the mote and found a bunch of older kids (ages nineteen to forty, I’d say) doing much the same thing with bigger buckets. They were foreigners mainly and all soaked to the bone. “That a waterproof camera?” one of them asked by way of warning.

After getting a few shots I put the camera down and was instantly soaked by some combination of bucket, hose, watergun. I grabbed a bucket and started dousing passing bikers. Some people would hold up their hands in a gesture of “No, please,” others would point to some precious cargo that shouldn’t be soiled, others just gave a mean glare. Most were doused anyway and few seemed to mind.

The next day our little game of splashing the passing motorists seemed pretty damn quaint. Chiang Mai had been transformed into some sort of 12-year-old’s waterpark fantasy. The streets were lined with people baring waterguns, buckets, hoses, buckets, waterguns, waterguns, waterguns. Everyone was wearing their bathing suits (though, notably, everyone was wearing a drenched t-shirt instead of going topless or with bikini top). At the mote, where the ten kids had doused each other the evening before, there were hundreds of dripping combatants. They poured full buckets down each other’s backs, then sprayed the on-rushing traffic. It was a mix of old and young, foreign and local, wet and wetter. Everyone was laughing and those of us who were doing this for the first time just kept shaking our heads and wondering how we’d stumbled upon something so delightfully, childishly fun.

What makes it impossible to remain dry in Chiang Mai (and many other parts of Thailand) during Songkran is how wet everyone else is. When you’ve been squirting and being squirted for hours there is a certain diminished return to getting your neighbor drenched for the 20th time. But when someone comes by with even a stitch of dry clothing that is a mark worth spending some water on.

The theater of the dry is a funny thing. Everyone has a reason they can’t get wet and they communicate this narrative with a series of pained, pleading expressions that change with the darkening of their clothes to a state of resignation. Only the police, the Buddha, and the very old remain at all dry.

You can’t complain because the water is washing away your sins in preparation for the New Year. Plus, everyone else is doing it.

In the evening you go home and wring out your clothes and leave them to dry. You take a shower and put on the only dry clothes you have left. You go to dinner and a few steps outside your guest house you’re soaked again and the perpetrators are laughing and carrying on as your face goes from pained to resigned. You eat dinner dripping and pay for it with waterlogged baht. Tomorrow you’ll scheme ways to hail a taxi without getting wet, or ask someone to get you a pancake from the stand across the street because you don’t want to risk it. You’ll feel like a prisoner in a warring city. Because you are. But it’s a lovely war in a lovely city and as you leave town on the first official day of the festival you can’t help but be a little jealous of the greatest Peter Pan holiday there ever was. You know that all the cranberry sauce and stuffed stockings you can imagine will never make you smile like squirting a watergun in Chiang Mai in the middle of April.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Midnight Train to Nepal

Heading on a night train to the India/Nepal border in a few hours. You're wondering if Nepal is safe. We all are. We think it is or we wouldn't be going.

Train gets in at 6am then we catch a three hour bus and then we're at the border. We'll need to apply for a visa and get a bus into Nepal (another 10 hours of bus fun). If there aren't any bandhs (nationwide strikes that stop all commerce under fear of violence) we should get there easily enough.

The dangers seem to be ones of inconvienence, not safety. There have only been two tourists caught in civil unrest ever and it was widely reported so unless you see something on the news you'll know I'm okay.

Have written much about India. Have been unable to get it posted with current internet situation. Nepal promises to have much more basic facilities so it could be a while.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Cruising through the subcontinent

In Jaipur and heading over to Taj Majal tonight or tomorrow. Jaipur looks like a National Geographic pictorial with Crayola colored outfits on all the women and cart-pulling camels trotting down the streets. Took tour of Jaipur yesterday. Was only non-Indian again but they did it in English anyway which made me feel a bit awkward but at least allowed me to know what was happening. Met Christian, a German, and we're probably going to travel on together for a few.

I'm moving much more quickly than I thought, thanks mainly to these tours which allow you to cover everything in a day. Also, there's no "social scene," people are too busy surviving to go out drinking. Christian is first traveler I've met...there just aren't many here during the awful hot summer and I've been staying in homes (with Akshay's relatives) instead of guest houses. The temperature gets over 100 every day and finding shade is a constant game. Okay, off to meet Christian and figure out next few days.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Incredible India

In Delhi. Trying to avoid mental 'Heart of Darkness' conception of trip but Australia/New Zealand/Thailand/India routing has made that hard. Staying with Akshay's relatives in Noida, a Delhi suburb.

Took tour of city yesterday. The worst thing a backpacker can do is "take a tour." The best thing they can do is anything where they get to say "and I was the only foreigner." So this was a tour where I was the only non-Indian. It was given all in Hindi, it was $2.50 for nine hours of intense Delhi sights. Made friends with bus mates. Served as something of a curiosity.

Not sure when I'll get to post real entries, internet place here doesn't take CDs. Heading south tomorrow for Jaipur, then look at that Taj Majal and maybe go to Nepal and fight with the Maoists for a bit.

Ankle continues to improve. As girl said on flight to Delhi, "It's not good just to take antibiotics, but if you have to take them anyway, it's probably a good idea to be on them while you're in India."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A Good News Day

Woke up with much less pain in ankle, pills must be working. Flew down to Bangkok to try and get Indian visa before everything closes for the holidays. Here was the scene when I reached the Indian embassy.

Me: Hi. I'm hoping I can pick up my visa. I know it takes five days and its only been four but they said it could be ready today.

Guy at window #2: No, impossible. Come back Friday.

Me: But I have a ticket to fly to Delhi tomorrow. I really need to leave, I flew all the way here today to get the visa.

Guy at window #2: You can sell your ticket and buy a new one for next week.

Me: I really need to leave tomorrow, I'm willing to wait here all afternoon but I need it today.

Guy at window #2: Okay, wait there then.

Two hours later I had my visa. Off to Delhi tomorrow.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Have Infection, Will Travel

When my thumb got badly infected in New Zealand, Jason and I found a silver lining: At least it was my thumb rather than a toe. Even though it hurt everytime my thumb touched something it was easy enough to keep it away from touching stuff. A toe would be impossible to protect without staying in bed.

So, yeah, my foot is infected now.

Just went a clinic here in Chiang Mai and learned that the throbbing swollen lump that once looked like my right ankle is likely infected with a similar infection as my thumb was back in March. I woke up three days ago with ten or so bites on the inside of both ankles; don't ask me why the bugs only bit right there.

The patches of bites have grown more swollen and painful over the last couple days and last night it was bad enough that I couldn't sleep. Apparently the staph infection got in through the bites.

So I'm back on antibiotics, and am limping around like I just had a hip replaced. I have faith in the drugs and though I am going to India in a couple days at least I'll be staying with Akshay's relatives who can help me get to the right medical facility if necessary.

Never a dull moment.

Thailand in Pictures

Bamboo Island

Going to Poda from Au Nang on my birthday

Monique found a cake, and it was actually pretty good

The fish swarmed around Alison at Bamboo Island, it was much more intense than this but most of them left before we could get the camera.

Shooting on the beach in Phi Phi

Chiang Mai at sunset

A market in Chiang Mai

Cooking class

Novice monks prepare for the start of the New Year water festival

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Talk to Me!

Through the miracle of a laptop internet connection I'll be able to get on Instant Messenger tomorrow, Friday. I plan to hop on around 10AM EASTERN if any of you would like to type. I'll even be able to talk phone-style if you have I-Chat, which last I knew was still only available for Macs.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

People Like Pictures here are a few from recent days.

Beautiful Maya Bay was where The Beach was shot. Its on Ko Phi Phi Lay, which is the sister island to the main outpost of Ko Phi Phi Don.

Me and my new haircut pose on the Maya Bay beach.

A birthday bucket with the Canadian girls, from left: Monique, Alison, and Jess.

8am to 8am; Ko Phi Phi to Chiang Mai

Here at the reception desk of the Your Guest guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand it’s 8am and my watch alarm has just gone off. It reminds me that it was exactly 24 hours ago that I awoke in Ko Phi Phi and began the northern trek I’m just now finishing.

By foot, ferry, taxi, plane, and bus I attempted to make it all the way north in one day while stopping off in Bangkok to arrange my plane ticket and visa for India. The elaborate, perhaps impossible, plan to get the India trip settled during a 90-minute stopover in Bangkok was the product of a calcifying distaste for the Thai capital. The stinking, sweating, over-packed carcinogen of a metropolis currently ranks as my least favorite city in the world.

Stuff six million people into a place and the traffic will be intense, that’s a given. In New York they’ve combated the problem with a massive subway system, in L.A. they have several radio stations, and in Bangkok they just drive wherever someone else isn’t already driving. Six lane highways cut through the middle of the city and cars generally drive on the left side of the road. If the left is busy and the right is clear they pull into oncoming traffic to gain some ground, then dart back into their lane to avoid a head on collision.

Some small roads seem overrun by foot traffic, crowded as they are by street venders selling fruit, grilled meat, t-shirts, CDs, DVDs, Pad Thai and a good deal many other things. But these pedestrian allies aren’t safe from traffic either and soon a horn honks behind you and a tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi) or sometimes even a full sized cab is nipping at your flip-flops.

One difference between Australia and Thailand is the way cars treat crosswalks. In both countries wide, white lines indicate where to cross the street (you’ve probably seen something similar in your country). In Australia a pedestrian in a crossway is treated as if he’s carrying the Pope’s casket to St. Peter’s, in Thailand the drivers apparently think you’re a ghost or want you to become one. It is a country perpetually playing a game of Human Frogger. One hot afternoon, tired of walking, I took a “shortcut” through 12 lanes of merging highway traffic to get back to my neighborhood. If you can imagine those stretches of I-95 north as it reaches New York you get the idea. Unlike New Zealand, they don’t charge $200 for a daily dose of adrenaline and the danger here is probably more real than all the bungee jumps and skydives in Queenstown.

Having spared you the general state of accommodation, the maddening choices for transportation, the constant touts and the endless filth, I ask you to take my word that Bangkok is a cup of someone else’s tea.

The ferry left Ko Phi Phi at 9am yesterday. The front deck of the boats between Phi Phi and the mainland is the best place to sit, and two Dutch women and I shared the small space; the sun hot and the wind cool.

In Phuket I found three others on their way to the airport and we split the $15 cab. The cute girl apologized for the still-drunk guys, one of whom fell asleep on me for a good chunk of the hour-long ride.

The plane landed in Bangkok around 3pm and the $2.50 shuttle bus to the city dropped me at Koh Sahn Road just after 4pm.

Tucked into a sidestreet I found the seemingly trustworthy travel agent who had arranged my trip south. The plan was simple: Buy my ticket to India and drop off my passport with the travel agent who would arrange my Indian visa while I was up in Chiang Mai. It was the kind of efficient arrangement only a savvy, seasoned world traveler like myself could conceive of and execute. And of course, it blew up in my face quite spectacularly.

Turns out the Indian embassy is closed six of the next eight days due to a dizzying succession of Thai holidays. Since it takes five business days to process the visa, that means it would be ready April 18 instead of April 12. I planned to leave April 14…because that’s the day my Thai visa expires. The only solution the woman offered was for me to go to the Indian embassy myself and explain why I needed the visa expedited. Since the embassy was closed the next day, that would mean spending two nights in Bangkok.

Clearly shaken by the thought of this arrangement, I sat silently considering my scant options: Overstay my Thai visa and leave later, stay in Bangkok to oversee the visa process, or curl into a ball and rock myself to sleep. It was at about this time that I realized by $3500 video camera was broken. Just then the woman’s husband stuck his head into the conversation and came up with something: They could bring the visa application to the Indian embassy first thing Thursday morning and ask them to process it in four business days, in which case it would be ready on April 12, just before the five day weekend.

“It is the Indian Embassy so nothing is for sure, but it might work.”

So that’s what I did. I still wanted to go up the Chiang Mai and there was a bus leaving in an hour. When heading from Bangkok to the islands in the south or Chiang Mai in the north you have a choice: a $40/90-minute plane or $10/13-hour bus. Since I claim to be a backpacker (and had just spent 13,000 baht ($325) on Indian arrangements), it was onto the bus.

The bus was crowded with likeminded backpackers, who knew they were not only saving the expense of a flight but the cost of a night’s accommodation since they’d be sleeping in the dank, narrow, somewhat reclining seats of the two-deck bus. This meant another $3 was being saved!

I grabbed a seat in the front row of the upper deck. The front of the bus was all Plexiglas and gave a wonderful panorama of the belching rush-hour traffic. We never seemed to get on a highway once we left the city. The bus wound up through small towns and villages, stopping often for unclear reasons. The overnight traffic was mainly 18-wheelers hauling something dark and long. On the TV at the front of the bus a dodgy bootleg version of a dodgy movie (The Rundown, starring The Rock!) filled the first two hours of the trip. Twelve hours is a long time on a bus.

I slept a little and listened to my Ipod a lot and then we were in Chiang Mai and they were shuttling us into the city to a guesthouse that had paid the bus operators to take us to their place. It was at about this time that my camera started working again. I strapped on my bag, opened up my Lonely Planet to the Chiang Mai map and found a place to stay down the road and around the corner. It was just before 8am and a room would be ready in a couple hours, they told me. I could sleep on the couch across from the reception desk if I wanted, it even had a pillow and a blanket. Just then it was 8am and my alarm went off as I set down my bag. I opened up my computer on a table in the restaurant a few feet away from reception. The front desk guy came over and looked at my pictures of New Zealand. I wrote this, and then my room was ready.

Money entry #2

I’m spending about $27/day in Thailand compared to $67 in Australia and New Zealand. SE Asia is a backpackers’ Mecca because everything’s so cheap. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve bought and what they cost:

Private room with fan: $5/night
City bus across Bangkok: $.10
Flight from Bangkok to Phuket: $42
Full meal: $1.50-3
Half pineapple cut into bite-sized chunks: $.25
Hour message at most famous Thai message palace: $7.50
Half-hour internet in Bangkok: $.40
Half-hour internet in Phi Phi: $2.25
Phone call to US from major city: $.25/min
Phone call to US from small town: $.75/min
Airmail package to US: $7
MiniDV tapes: $3.25 each
Toilets that don’t use toilet paper and no hot water in showers: priceless

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Ko Phi Phi story

After additional consideration I've decided there's little lost and something gained by leaving this up:

They show up tattooed and hung-over, wearing dreads and tiny bikini tops. The backpackers are an unlikely army of accidental aid workers but they’re the only help residents of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand have when they return to their tsunami-ravaged homes.

Though most surrounding areas have been repaired and rebuilt, Ko Phi Phi—the island made famous and wildly popular by Leonardo Dicaprio’s The Beach—is still in ruins. Residents wonder why the government has forbid rebuilding at least until late May and not a single major relief agency has turned up to help on the island where 2,000 died, leaving the work of cleaning and repair to the handful of backpackers who have stumbled onto the ferry to Ko Phi Phi.

“They’ve been to Phuket, they’ve been to Krabi and the places look okay and they say, ‘Okay we’ll go to Phi Phi island, it sounds like a nice place,’” said Clare West, an island resident and volunteer organizer. “And they come in and they expect it to be the old Phi Phi and they’re gob smacked and once a lot of people have seen it they can’t leave because they feel guilty about it.”

The informal volunteer work began in early February when Porntip Palertchai Wong stopped Neill Dodson as he passed her souvenir store and asked him to help clear the area in front of her shop. “We thought she was a bit crazy opening up when there was nobody here,” Dodson said. But he bought two wheelbarrows and five shovels and when Wong’s area was cleared he and two friends moved on to the next shop. Soon visiting backpackers were assisting.

“Most people came for a day and ended up staying at that time two or three weeks. Literally four or five people would come a day and we would just all work in an area and clear a strip. Now you can see it’s a little bit bigger. We’re getting about 100 volunteers working a day,” West said.

Monique Sauvé, 18, of Red Deer, Alberta took the 90 minute ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi and discovered the group of volunteers. “We thought it would be super pretty here and I had no idea it would look like this,” Sauvé said. “We were here for about 25 minutes and we ended up working here.”

Tyler Pargee, 24, of Vancouver, felt compelled to lend a hand when he arrived. “It seemed like the thing to do, to start helping out, everyone seemed to be doing it. No one here is involved in any organization, they’re just on vacation and pitching in,” he said while taking a break from demolition work.

Each evening at 7pm the loosely organized volunteers meet on the beach at Carlito’s, one of the few re-opened bars here, and choose from a list of available jobs for the following morning. “We got people smashing down walls with sledgehammers, we got people painting shops, it’s a completely wide range of jobs: carpentry, electric, painting, demolition, building, plastering, you name it, it has to be done and we’re doing it,” Dodson said. There’s even a group of vacationing scuba divers and snorkelers who lug debris up from the ocean floor.

At times it looks like life imitating art. In The Beach, which was shot in Ko Phi Phi, tromping backpackers discover an unspoiled island paradise and build their own utopian community. Now that the masses of tourists are gone, the island has been left to locals and backpackers, who work to repair their private paradise by day and drink buckets of potent Sang Som whiskey by night. But after eight hours of heavy labor, as the Sang Som flows, the obvious question inevitably comes up:

“You know today I was working and I looked around and thought, ‘How can they not have a machine here to do this right?’ It takes people like us from around the world to come here and do this manual stuff,” said Rob Hearn, a volunteer from Dallas “We’re the only ones here and we’re doing work that’s so manual its like taking us back in time 50 years. We got an assembly line going with rocks and there’s a tractor half a mile away that I haven’t seen anyone in.”

Government tractors have cleared acres of debris from the sections of Ko Phi Phi that were completely destroyed but provincial Governor Arnont Promnart said the big equipment wouldn’t do any good in partially damaged areas.

“Heavy machine cannot go into that lot. If heavy machine go into that road every building ruined because the streets very narrow,” Promnart said.

Furthermore, he said the work of clearing and repair is best left to the residents themselves, especially given the amount of looting that’s already been reported on the island.

“Right now I told the private sector to take care of their own property because if the government people still go right there, you know there’s something missing or something like this, it’s a problem,” Promnart said. “It would be better if the owner cleared by themselves.”

So for residents like Atn Oonsuvon, 20, who lost his father in the tsunami, the farang (foreigners) are the only source of assistance when returning to the island.

“Farang help me, help Phi Phi,” said Oonsuvon. “Thailand no good, no help.” Oonsuvon returned to Ko Phi Phi with his mother and sister and repaired their eight by 20 foot home/business without formal assistance.

But the punch line for families like Oonsuvon’s is still to be delivered. After rebuilding their house without assistance, the government will almost certainly come in and knock it down.

Though the Thai government is still working on a plan for redevelopment (it will be announced on May 22 at the earliest) both possible plans Governor Promnart described in a recent interview call for everyone within 30 meters of the shore to relocate to higher ground. Promnart said it is a necessary safety precaution while residents here fear they’re being moved to the hills to make way for a mega resort on the beach.

Asked several times if a mega resort might end up where residents like Oonsuvon have lived for generations, Governor Promnart first said, “No,” then said, “Yes,” and finally said, “Two months after this I’ll tell you.”

Some residents see the lack of assistance, unclear plans and changing timetables as stalling tactics aimed at depleting residents’ meager savings (business owners have received about $500 in cash aid since the tsunami) and compelling them to move.

“People are prolonging their misery just to make more money. Private investors are using the local government—the national government may not even know about it—quietly, behind the scenes to stop people from rebuilding and starving them out,” said John, an English-born Ko Phi Phi resident for 13 years, who refused to disclose his last name, saying he feared he’d lose his work permit.

Governor Promnart said he doesn’t want owners to sell their land and shook his head emphatically when asked if the government was “starving out” the people of Ko Phi Phi.

“I think this is a very misunderstanding. We want the people in Phi Phi to go back right there. But in a better situation, more safe and more pretty. But it needs time. Five months and a situation like this is not a long time,” Promnart said. “Maybe they forget the situation that happened with their families on the 26th of December. We don’t want the situation to happen again for the people so we do as best as we can to make Phi Phi better.”

In the meantime, with rebuilding on hold, government and Red Cross aid is being directed at Phi Phi residents still living in displacement camps on the mainland. The first relief group to establish operations on the island itself, Hands On Thailand, hasn’t been able to do much more than set up a website (

“We want to get going here and having been over to the displacement camps in Krabi where a lot of the local residents are, they’re desperate to get back and we’re desperate to help them but we’re not allowed to,” said Zoë Fox, a representative from Hands On. “They want to come back, this is their home, this is their life…All we can do at the moment is give them a hug.”

Meanwhile, the work of the unlikely army continues, as backpackers with wheelbarrows and shovels clear one shop at a time. In the last two months most of the streets in Tonsai Village have been cleared and nearly 100 businesses have re-opened. A growing trickle of normal tourists are arriving to buy the jewelry, bootlegged DVDs, Thai pancakes, and fresh fruit that once again line the car-less streets here.

John, the island resident for 13 years, said he’d seen renewed hope in people here. “You see the change on their faces. Before they said ‘Phi Phi is finished,’ but the backpackers have given them hope. They’re the only ones who have given them hope.”