Matthew's News and Gossip: 10/01/2002 - 11/01/2002
Matthew's News and Gossip
A man with no talent, but armed with a digital camera, can waste lots of bandwidth
Monday, October 21, 2002
Just a quickie--Still on Ko PhaNgan, Had a great dive today courtesy of Fredi, Daniel and Heike at Haad Yao Divers at the SailRock mid way between Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. Tonight is the Full Moon party, so we'll see how I survive! The other news is that the full set from Malaysia is up, and you can re-read it (in the unlikely event that you read it already!) with active links in the previous blog below. Of course I'm spending more money in the AtEase Home Internet service center than on hotels and food combined!
So I'm now in Thailand, the blur of Malaysia having passed me by. I started in the town of Melaka, where as I mentioned, cadging a lift home off two Russian gymnastics coaches (rhythmic, not artistic, please) turned into an all night drinking session. As the beers flowed Vera (the rope specialist) kept on explaining to me in more and more slurred broken English that she was upset that everyone she met thought Russians were drunks. It wasn't true, she told me! However she at least was a good dancer, her companion Julia, wasn't--despite her appearance at the world Rythmic Gynastics Championships in 1992. They were held in Belgium, for those of you in need of a winning tie-breaker at the Mad Dog pub quiz. Luckily they eventually took me back to my grotty hotel and disappeared into the night; God knows what kind of training the young Malaysia gymnasts got the next day!
Melaka proved quite an interesting town with several temples from the Hindus, Muslims and Chinese all squished together. It was also much older than everything else in Malaysia (having been conquered by the Portuguese in the 15th century) and then by the Dutch and the British. The best part was a huge Chinese cemetry with large elaborate graves. I now know how I'm going to be buried! Actually the cemetry was scheduled to be bulldozed and developed in the 1980s and a huge fuss was kicked up by the Chinese in Malaysia. They used it as a rallying cry to defend their rights, which are somewhat restricted by the government. Admittedly the Chinese have all the money, and the Muslim majority of Malays, led by the soon to retire Dr Seti Matahir (and lots of other words in his title before the surname) Mohamed, believes that affirmative action for Malays is the only way to keep the nation coherent. (Other people might think that a continually re-elected prime minister pandering to the majority would say that, wouldn't he?). Anyway, in the end some rich Chinese paid off the government and the hill was left as the beautiful cemetry it is--mostly used for jogging by the locals.
As I was leaving I met a lovely Indonesian girl called Navi, who was training to be a ship captain, appropriately enough. She was studying in Melaka and wanted to take me to the zoo. I cried off as I wanted to get to Kuala Lumpur, so she had her two minders give me a ride to the bus station. They were so nice and wouldnt even let me buy them a coke--even though they'd saved me a $4 taxi fare. My good luck continued as on the bus I met a very chatty ex-accountant called Lionel. He was reading about financial planning and had just jacked in PWC to become an insurance salesman....maybe a lesson in there. Lionel was a Liverpool fan. As so it seems is almost all of Malaysia, if not then they are Man U or Chelsea fans. Either which way the Premier League has a virtual monopoly on televised sport. Funny then that that night in Kuala Lumpur I was unable to find a TV showing England's pathetic win in Slovenia, although on my return from the jungle I did see the highlights of the even more pathetic draw with Macedonia
I didn’t like KL much. It has got some vaguely interesting buildings, like the Railway station and the Supreme court, but the fabled Petronas towers look very out of place. It’s also heavily Muslim in an open sort of way, and all the Malay women wear headscarves, although they didn’t 20 years ago. Not coincidentally virtually all of the girls had really bad acne. The bookstores contained loads of self-improvement books as well as a few copies of Henry Ford’s “The International Jew”—which you won’t get in a bookstore in New York (apparently). The other ridiculous thing is that the tube/subway/metro system has two different lines. Not much unusual there as there are a couple of places to connect. But the lines are owned by different companies and when you connect you have to go outside and buy another ticket! It makes London transport look intelligent!
After staying in a seedy colonial era hotel called the Celebration, famous for its sizzling and pretty disgusting steaks, I ran away to the bus stop and ended up in Jerantut. Jerantut is the gateway to Tamara Negara, the oldest rainforest in the world and Malaysia’s biggest national park. At the rather dodgy “Green guesthouse” I signed up for a jungle tour in a forest adjacent to the national park with a South African diving instructor called Roach and two Dutch students called Hsskkaaa and Meecccaa, or something like that. The jungle trek wasn't as tough as all the comments made it out to be, but the nights were. The first we spent at a secret camp. My “bed” was a pile of tree branches spread over a frame. In the middle of the night I rolled over in bed and half the branches broke. I spent the rest of the night trying to fit on three branches, terrified of falling onto the jungle floor! The second night was spent up in a cave with Roach's snoring and Meeccaa's sleep talking keeping me awake, although they claimed that my snoring kept them awake, but we all know I don't snore, right!. Total sleep over 2 nights--about 20 minutes!
The hiking wasn't tough but it was very wet and we saw plenty of wildlife in the form of leeches that clung to all parts of us and drank lots of our blood, including this one. Of course no tigers (again!)although we saw a footprint--rather ironic in the light of this news story! I also had fun in a cave with some bats (sorry for waking you, chaps, but this is a GREAT photo!) and climbing down a huge vine from a cave entrance. Tjeska managed to get stung by a hornet on the lip in spectacular fashion! Overall though we were a little disapointed with the tour and so the next day Roach and I went up to the national park itself, via a ride in a tiny car with about 1/2 inch ground clearance which was further reduced when our driver decided to pick up a friend for the trip! On the way up we saw the real central Malaysia....miles and miles of clear cutting. I also managed to lose my camera up on the earlier trip, but another guide found it, after he said he couldn't find it and then I offered him a reward. He also decided that the reward I'd offered was too low and managed to piss me off by bargaining after he already had the camera.
Up at Tamara Negara, Roach and I climbed a damn steep hill called Bukit Teresek and got a good view over the rain forest (a few trees had been trimmed so you could get a view). We laughed and taunted the dummies who'd paid for a guide to show them the way (which was clearly signposted) but they took it well. We then went on the canopy walk, which is essentially a plank of wood suspended in mid air (with lots of ropes to hold on to). After all that effort we decided to stop for a beer, in the five-ish star resort at the visitor lodge. At $4 a can it was the most expensive one we had in Malaysia (For comparison, I was staying in $3 a night hotels!).
Back at the Green house we ran into a) my camera and b) two German women, Tanja and Julia, who very bossily explained to us that everything we knew was wrong (they were probably right but that's not the point!)...luckily they were going into the jungle not out of it so that we escaped their company after dinner. Actually they were quite fun and a little older and worldlier than the average backpacker I've met. Of course after an overnight train ride to the border what should we do but meet 3 German women at the border and head into Thailand with them. I was of course not allowed to go into Thailand on my US passport as I had no Malaysian exit stamp on it (that was on my British one). So much for all the aid the US gave them during Vietnam! On the train a party broke out. Roach got in the first two rounds and soon another English guy called Andrew who was a zoologist at Stirling university and a fun Dutch couple plus half the Thai army joined in. Roach decied to start wearing their clothes. I of course managed to miss my stop, so instead of going to Krabi I went about 3 hours further north, seeing an amazing rainbow and some amazing scenery on the way and made it to the ferry to Ko Pha-Nang. Apparently there is a big Burning man-type party here on Monday, and my hotel is showing the English footy tonight! The chances of me making it to BangKok recede daily!
So apart from sitting in the luxury of Eliot Fisk's amazing apartment --this is the view and watching a few DVDs, I did bugger all in Honkers. I did take a tram all the way to the pool, but it was closed. It was a similar story in Singapore, where apart from an intellectual lunch with Mun-Kew Leung's colleagues at the Lab for information science--one of 16 government research labs making sure that the model one party state stays ultra competitive in the next decade--I just sat by the pool at JB and Rebecca's house. Well that does rather gloss over the party Roger Owens had in Hong Kong, (full slideshow photos here with a few of HK towers, or just look at the beautiful dancers) and the followng night out in Singapore where Hugh McDorfman (minus wife and kids for the night) joined us in a 20 years to the day (bloody nearly) Girton college, Cambridge reunion). Both 4 in the morning jobs. JB (here with daughter Clova, who thinks she's a boy incidentally!) was his usual self, getting me up after 3 hours sleep (apparently I was on the bog) to get the plane, and then the next day getting Roger up to play Rugby at 9am!
After much hanging around and getting 400 photos uploaded with Mun-Kew's help, I eventually got on a bus for Melaka in Malaysia. A quiet start to the night changed dramatically when seeking shelter in a restaurant from a huge thunderstorm, I ended up being "shown the town" until 4 am by two Russian gymnasts (No, I'm not kidding). I now have to go out and see the town sober. There; you're up to date now!
Sept 29--All India is pretty rough but Agra really tries your patience. There are endless attempts to sell you chess sets, necklaces, anything made of marble, and anything else that moves. By now I had lost patience with rip-off rickshaw drivers, and aggressive hawkers, and I managed to really lose my temper a few times. It didn't help, but I felt better!
The big things to see are the Taj Mahal itself (a big tomb), the Agra Fort which was the capital of the Mugul empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Palace and Mosque 30 Kms away at Fatapur Sikri, which was briefly the capital between 1574 and 1590 when they ran out of water. I kept on paying for guides and getting less than I'd hoped for, and by now I was in Indian mode--which means that paying $2 for something that I could have got for $1 really wrankled. What was interesting was meeting a random British couple called Pete and Fiona on the bank overlooking the Taj Mahal. I'd got up at dawn (really!) to take a boat over to see it in the early light. There are a few pics of it reflected in the mud(dy river). They are driving from London to Sydney to have a good time and raise some money for CARE International. If you're bored of my tame adventures you might want to read theirs or donate to CARE in their name.
I found out via the incredibly slow internet access near my rather nice hotel (Hotel Sheela) that JB had managed to get his man at Cathay in Singapore to switch my flights so that I could go to Roger Owens' leaving party in Hong Kong on Friday Oct 4, and then meet JB, Roger and Hugh McDorfman in Singapore the next day. My liver is dreading this already. However, this gave me the time to go to Varanasi. On my way to book the ticket from an agent set up by Raj the Internet dude, I nearly fell prey to the famous gem scam.
The one the guide books warn against works like this: you buy $5,000 worth of gems from a jeweller for $2,000 on your credit card. The jeweller mails it to you on your next 1st world stop (in my case Australia), you give it to his man who gives you $7,000, you send another $3,000 to the jeweller and pocket the $2,000 profit. The guide books tell you that there is no man and your gems are duds. The version that my travel agent's "brother" tried on me was similar. Apparently he had exceeded his export quota, and so was essentially "buying" my personal export quota. I would still have to put $2,000 on my card for $5,000 of gems, but he wanted to send my slip to MY bank/credit card company rather than keep it (as the guide book warns about), mail the gems to Australia and then I would have to write to my credit card company telling them to process the payment, only after I had the money from his man in Australia. I couldn't see where the scam was. But in the sure knowledge that the best cons are the ones that look foolproof if not legal, I luckily had to rush off to Fatapur Sikri, without getting my chance of making a fortune.
On the way out of Fatapur Sikri I randomly met the 2 Canadian girls whose tickets to Varanasi I'd bought (I'd met them in the hotel the night before). On an interminable bus ride back that went round half of Agra, it became clear that we were close to missing the train. Even worse, the travel agent told me that the Agra train was full and he'd got us on a train from Tumelka some 30Kms the other side of Agra. Getting to the hotel was chaos--we used 3 separate rickshaws, none of who believed us when we said we wanted the East gate of the Taj Mahal where the hotel was. They kept on taking us to the closest gate. We kept on barely paying them. Then the one taking us to the taxi stand wouldn't. We kept on being dropped at his friends' places as they asked us to "take a seat". After about 10 minutes of me shouting "Taxi now or no pay" in my best Memsahib accent, he found us a taxi stand with one taxi at it. We had no choice but to accept paying 500 rupees (the going rate is 300) to get to Temulka. Driving in India is terrifying, and this was the worst ever. The taxi drove down the wrong side of the road for 30 Kms swinging in if a huge truck or bus came the other way. Me and one of the Canadian girls (Mira) hung on for grim death (no seatbelts of course), and only at the other end did we find out that the second Canuck (Ariel) had gone to sleep!
We had made the train with 5 minutes to spare, and incredibly for India it was on time. And the ticket I'd bought from the gem dealer's brother was genuine. Maybe the gem deal wasn't a scam! On the train we hung out with some joker Indians (who somewhat ironically owned a washing machine store in Varanasi--the center of Indian purifying-- and had been staying in a $130 a night hotel in Agra). I thought they were funny but the girls were a litle scared. I was both of their husbands(!), but really the guys on the train were very nice, and I wish I'd had time to take up their invite to visit them at their home in Varanasi, but I only had one night there and the girls rebuffed their invite kind of harshly. (I don't think the guys really cared about inviting me!) I showed them some photos (they couldnt guess who my girlfirend was, but they think it's Diana France!), they showed us a few of theirs, and one of the girls' Mira showed her's. They were a little shocked by Mira's photo of her kissing a friend in a very friendly manner, but I liked it!
We arrived and went to a cheap guesthouse for a snooze. Then I went for a walk with Ariel. Varanasi is amazing. The old town is a rabbit warren of tiny streets--too small for rickshaws. Every five yards kids play with you (I played a few shots to extra cover in an alley by a Nepali temple--that's cricket for you Yanks-this is Ariel batting). Then we were suddenly by the river. The Ganges is filthy and smelly but it is extremely sacred to 500 million Hindus, most of whom want to wash in it all the time, it seems!. All down the length of Varanasi, steps called Ghats go down to the water. They are a combination of washing steps, market place and temple. At one Ghat (Demshawala, I think) I was "pressured" into having a great two man massage. I paid well over the odds ($5 not $3) but it was well worth it. The next morning I got up at 5am with one Canadian (the other was sick) and a random Swiss physicist -- a kind of Frank Schellenberg sound-a-like - and went out for sunrise on the Ganges. We lit a few candles (bought from a pushy 6 year old girl) and then our boatman Babu rowed up (50 minutes) almost through the pilgrims and "sadus" (holy men) washing on the Ghats, and then put us out into the current which quickly took us back downstream near to the Burning Ghat, where lucky Hindus who die in Varanasi and are cremated are put in the Ganges and guaranteed a place in Heaven.
My one night in Varanasi showed off the major traveller phenomen in India. The vast majority of backpacker travellers are Israelis escaping a rather bleak time at home. Literally the hawkers great you by saying "Shalom". I spent a fun night chatting with stoned Israelis, particularly one girl who managed to knit while stoned, and one French brother and sister combo who had been up in the Himalayas looking after Tibetan refugees--she's a nurse and he was teaching them to make cheese. The Tibetans can't handle living at 5,000 feet (it's too low) and they all have sinus infections.
After my morning on the Ganges I had just time to visit a silk factory, which means see looms in lots of people's houses and then buy what I hope is not overpriced silk. Then I had to skidaddle in a very very slow taxi to the airport in order to fly back to Delhi. During the security searches (which make SFO's look efficient and quick) I managed to lose my hat which made me very grumpy! (I've had it 5 years and love it)
Back in Dehli what had looked chaotic and filthy two weeks before now looked like a paragon of order and cleanliness. I had a swim at the great Taj Mahal hotel where I stayed the first night and where I left my bags. They recognized me, even the pool attendant! That evening I walked north past India Gate, up to the railway station. Finally deciding that my body was ready for it, I chanced a roadside restaurant at the train station before heading to the airport. My first day in Hong Kong therefore consisted of looking for bathrooms! But they are clean in Hong Kong! I sent my last emails from India in the cheapest and fastest Internet cafe yet. It had a satellite connection and about 80 stations--cost was 10 Rupees an hour (about 20 Cents!). After arguing with a taxi driver who wanted 400 Rupees to go to the airport, I took a rickshaw for 200.
The contrast between getting out of the filthy rickshaw and being lavished in Cathay Pacific's customer lounge (including a lavatory attendant who insisted on turning on the taps for you and getting the paper towels out) was the most extreme I experienced in India. And when I awoke I was back in the very very modern world of Hong Kong airport!
So we awoke after a remarkably good nights sleep in Jodphur, which is halfway back towards Jaipur. Jodphur has a HUGE fort in the center and alot of blue-washed houses around it. After minimal, in fact (remarkably for India) no, haggling, we got a guide to show us around the fort, which is itself a stiff 15 minute uphill walk from the town. He was happy to tell us that he owned 7 racing camels in his village. My anti-drug war T-shirt confused most Indians, but this gent got it. He said that, though it was illegal, everyone used opium and that he would inist on offering us opium if we came to his house. It seems that, quite appropriately, good manners are more important than laws! Jodphur Fort was full of incredible wealth, mosty of it wrapped up in the Elephant saddles (well the things you sit in on top of the elephants). There was also an amusing photo exhibit of the present Marahaja's coronation which happend in the 1950s when he was the tender age of 4. The ceremony lasted over 10 hours and the kid was "on" from 3 am till 8pm. Apparently he was perfectly behaved. How you ask? Well it happened that he had a stern British nanny, of course!
The next morning Mia abandoned me to go to Veranasi, 30 hours away by train. I wanted to drive to Udapuir and stop and see some famous Jain temples on the way, but there was a one day Hindu strike (note the rickshaws NOT moving) to protest the Muslim extremist's attack in Gujarat, and my drivers (who were also my hotel managers) wouldn't go. Instead I went shopping, paid far too much for a very beautiful wall hanging, and then I took a hairy ride on the back of the hotel manager's motorbike to the station where I got on a train back to Jaipur (the Agra train was full).
At 1am the train pulled into Jaipur, but rather than stay there I pulled a snap decision and went Tiger hunting. After arriving in a non-descript town called Alwar, and severely confusing a rickshaw driver, I ended up getting 4 hours sleep in a very expensive (by Indian standards) hotel which wasn't worth the $8 I paid. A very bumpy rickshaw and bus ride later I was at Sariska Tiger Reserve and National Park--the only national park open in India in September. All the rest are closed until the monsoon dies down.. I was forced to rent a guide and a jeep, as I was the only tourist in the park at that time (two others had done the 6 am round). They say Tiger-hunting takes patience. After being charged $20 (what the average Indian makes in a month!) to get in, I was demanding that the Tigers got into the jeep, sat on my lap and started purring. The rather nice 3 hour bump around showed us some deer and antelope and a wild pig, plus lots of monkeys at a Hindu temple. It was nice to be out of big cities, but a little dispiriting to find out that there are ony 25 Tigers in the park and no one ever sees one!
After a quick bus ride back to Alwar, during which I explained how IBM gave away the future of the PC to Microsoft to the confused Indian MBA student sitting next to me, I went to mail stuff home. This is a great adventure in India. Tailors make you a sack for your posessions and sew it up. You then find a post office that'll take it (it took me three triess in Alwar), write your mailing address on it, and three times on another piece of paper which the clerk sews to it; you pay the quite high fee (about $25) and hope that your beloved tapaestry (or whatever) shows up at your home in three months or so!