Konichiwa Japan

Landing in Japan an overwhelming wave of relief came over me. I loved India and consider it an invaluable experience but Japan promised to be efficient, clean, have running water and perhaps what I was most excited about friends. Spending 6 hours unconscious in Tokyo I boarded a plane early in the morning to Shonai. Shonai airport is 20 minutes from Sakata where Ben, a friend from coaching, lives. Sakata is on the coast of Japan and is a rural town that produces a shit tonne of rice.

Blue dot = Sakata

Ben met me at Shonai airport with his friend Umetsu Sensei, an incredibly kind woman who has clearly taken a real shine to Ben. Umetsu Sensei drove us back to Sakata and en route took us to a local bakery to buy breakfast. While I picked out 2 items and went to pay Umetsu Sensei filled an enormous basket of bread, croissants, apple strudels, unidentified bread related items, a burger and lemon curd. Seeing my attempt to pay Umetsu Sensei squealed that I was not to pay for anything, she was paying. Ben quickly hinted that any fight against this was useless, so I relented. Delivering us to Ben’s apartment, Umetsu then revealed that all the other food she bought was for Ben and I as well, she was terribly concerned that Ben’s apartment wouldn’t have enough food for two!

Whole lot of bread

Ben’s apartment is very traditionally Japanese – tatami flooring, rice paper walls, futons to sleep on – you get the idea. 

Living area
Fi and my room
Loo complete with hand basin on top of the loo – the tap automatically runs when you flush
Shower + bath combo

My first day in Sakata saw both Ben and me doing a lot of talking – while Ben was happy to be speaking constant English, I was happy to be speaking to someone about something other than where I was from and whether NZ really is that beautiful. Aside from talking we also went down to some of Ben’s local stores… Japan really is everything I hoped for. The first one was called Hard Off, this is a Japanese second hand store however everything in it looks brand new as the Japanese take such good care of their belongings. The store has everything in it from kimonos, to Rolex watches, to game boys, to homewares. Ben and I spent a good 45 minutes looking at everything… With me cackling through the store at all the bizarre shit you can buy. Afterwards we went to the 100 Yen shop. Basically the Japanese equivalent to a $2 store only as they don’t really do complete crap (like we do) there is some great stuff in there – there is also some hysterical items such as disposable underwear (for the business man/woman who doesn’t have time to shower?) or my personal favourite.. Finger condoms…

We also ventured to the supermarket which like all the other stores was filled with mysterious items of various shapes, sizes and textures – with barely anything written in English I spent a lot of time asking Ben what things were (he generally didn’t know). In the evening we went for sushi at Ben’s local sushi joint Kappa Sushi. This was a delicious evening filled with salmon, tuna, squid, miso, frozen mango, noodles and green tea. Seated at a table with a tablet above it Ben showed me that we just picked what we wanted on the tablet and ordered it and it was delivered to our table by either a spaceship or race car…

Spaceship delivering our food

All the food was delicious and Ben and I stuffed ourselves completely full – I went from having no protein in over a month to overloading on the stuff in one sitting!
Day 2 in Sakata started with me lying in bed relishing just how quiet Japan was, at 8:30am there was no tooting in the streets or people yelling at each other.. The loudest thing was the sound of a bike bell as the kids rode their bikes to school. Ben had to go into work so I was left to my own devices. After going for a run and getting supremely lost (and realising how unfit I was), I enjoyed making breakfast (with eggs that have yolks) and drinking tap water (all novelties after India). Around midday I finally set out on my commuter bike to adventure around Sakata…

The commuter bike is great, with no gears, a basket and the world’s most discrete lock (it’s the round thing around the top of the back wheel) it is the perfect mode of transport for this small and relatively flat town. Yet again my sense of direction let me down and I wound up well away from where I was meant to head and into a suburban area. Finally working out that I had headed in the wrong direction I biked back across the bridges and found the port and the fish market. The fish market was a bit of a disappointment, mainly because it smelt fishy which suggests that the fish isn’t perhaps that fresh. I then found my way to what is a very popular local park/garden. The park was generally quite empty with the occasional old person walking. The park had a few temples/shrine in it which were all rather beautiful – as in India, shrines/temples are everywhere.

The Japanese take a lot of pride in everything they do, so their parks/gardens are beautifully maintained and clean – it makes for a great spot to lie in the shade and read (which conveniently has become a favourite pastime of mine).

After the park I continued on my bike through the town, continually getting very confused by the lack of street signs (and where there were street signs, lack of English street signs) I spent a lot of time consulting my offline map app and going into supermarkets/convenience stores to browse and also try gain my bearings. When I finally worked out which way home was I began the journey home – stopping once when I saw a very beautiful shrine with pieces of paper tied everywhere.


Stopping at the shrine I asked a man what these bits of paper were for… In very broken English he explained to me that they were fortunes/wishes people had brought and tied here to ensure they come true (well at least that’s what I think he said, I could be completely wrong!). 

That evening Ben and I cooked dinner together – it was my first home cooked meal since leaving NZ and it was delicious full of vegetables and salmon and NO curry sauce I went to bed very content!

The next day Fi, another friend from coaching arrived to hang out with us. Ben had a regatta so I drove to the airport with Ben’s friend Umetsu Sensei to collect Fi. On arriving at Ben’s apartment to collect me, Umetsu presented me with a gift for Ben and I which was about 1kg of corn bread and a pack of bagels – I think she thinks Ben has no food in his house!

Carb dense diet
After collecting Fi, Umetsu insisted that en route to Ben’s apartment we stop so she could buy us ice creams. After the ice cream I asked about a picture of some Japanese food that looked like an Indian desert – it was immediately bought for us to try…

Tama Konyaku (spelling I am unsure of)

These balls were not at all like the Indian desert I had tried… They had the texture of human flesh (well what I imagine it to be like) and were really one of the worst things I have put in my mouth. After one ball I politely told Umetsu that they were not for me and passed the balls off to her son who loves them! Umetsu then proceeded to buy us some strawberries and courgettes before delivering us to Ben’s. The endless gift giving is very hard to keep up with here. The people are so kind and hospitable which is wonderful but even with small gifts from India and NZ it still feels like I am unable to give them back as much as they give to me!

Once Fi was showered and settled we went off for a wee explore and to do some supermarket shopping for Ben while he was coaching. Fi took nearly as much joy as I did touching everything and laughing at the stock of the 100 yen shop! I honestly think I could go to these shops everyday and not get bored! That evening the three of us went to a cocktail bar, it is run by a very old Japanese man who is an award winning cocktail maker despite the fact he has never drunk alcohol before! We sampled everyone of his award winning cocktails and then walked home quite drunk and probably quite loudly for a Japanese town!

Ben’s regatta continued on to Sunday so Fi and I went down to watch him coach and race. The racing here is very different to NZ, every kid is only allowed to race once and the races are only over 1km. This means there is a lot less racing than there is at home. There is also a lot less structure than racing in NZ, there is no age divisions and it is more about giving it a go than anything else! 

Ben has to coach in Japanese so listening to him give debrief a was not very informative but it was very impressive listening to how good his Japanese is!

Ben truly is a giant here

Arriving in time to watch Ben race his single, Fi an I took great pleasure in trying to cheer for Ben in Japanese (Ashi Ben chan = Legs friend Ben). The bizarre race structure meant that Ben was racing a single against a boys quad and boys four…

Ben with his favourite mountain in the background

The tables then turned… Fi and I were then asked if we would race in a Japanese knuckle boat…

Secretly really chuffed at the chance we jumped into the old wooden bath tub with our mixed crew and heavyweight cox and headed down the course ready to race. Despite me catching 2 crabs (how embarrassing) during the race our crew still managed to pull through with a win. When we crossed the finish line anyone would think we had won at the Olympics based on how the men reacted – it was great!!

Winning Crew

While there are definitely some design flaws with the knuckle boat Fi and I agreed that it was very smooth to row in and the wide bottom made it very well balanced! 

Despite being a small town, Sakata is a lot of fun. Having friends who I don’t have to get to know is a really nice change and I think Ben is loving being able to speak English all the time! Ben’s friends here are also enormously kind and funny, tonight we are off to dinner with a group of them from rowing so I am sure my crab will be a hot topic of conversation!!


That took a long time

Well. That was a lot of travel time. After busing to Delhi and spending 6 hours in Delhi airport I landed in Chennai which was a balmy 39 degrees. My first reaction was to get out of the heat and ditch my bags… While escaping the heat was easy it turned out ditching my bags was not. Upon entering the airport (at 3:30pm) I discovered I couldn’t check in until 9pm… I also was no longer allowed to exit the airport for reasons that I never understood. So began what ended up being my 12 hours in Chennai international airport. Flying internationally from Chennai is like flying internationally from Queenstown or Hamilton… There is nothing to do in the airport. Originally stuck outside of customs I drank a chai and read nearly an entire book for 6 hours. Then just as I was about to be able to check in for my flight I was told it had been delayed until 3:30am. I was less than thrilled for two reasons.. (1) I was already sick of the airport and (2) the delay meant I would miss my connecting connecting flight from Hong Kong to Japan. Full credit to Cathay Pacific the staff were lovely and immediately sorted a new flight for me. When I finally cleared customs I gave up and forked out $20 to go into a lounge that had sofas, food, wifi and way less people. Boarding the plane to Hong Kong at 3am I was exhausted and smelly (a situation that did not improve until I arrived in Tokyo). I struggled to keep myself awake for boarding… The second I sat down on the plane my eyes closed and I managed to sleep nearly the whole way to Hong Kong.

The ultimate sleeping arrangement on the plane

Landing in Hong Kong I was given a food voucher by Cathay Pacific and spent the next 3.5 hours wandering the airport. I can tell you now, Hong Kong airport is an airport that you could spend 12 hours in, I caught the trains to various parts of the airport, ate ramen and discovered that their duty free shops had free tasters of chocolate… I was set! Obviously I tested all chocolates (more than once). Being a responsible traveller I emailed the hostel I was meant to be staying in in Tokyo saying my flights had been delayed and I wouldn’t be landing arriving there until 10:30ish… The owner promptly replied saying I probably couldn’t stay there as I wouldn’t be able to get there as public transport stops at night and I had to cross the city from Narita airport to Haneda. This was something of an issue. I resolved to head straight to Haneda airport and stay in one of the airport hotels… I just really needed to shower before heading to Sakata to see Ben and meet his friends!Boarding my plane to Japan I realized by the time I landed it would have been more than 48 hours since I boarded my bus in McLeodganj… Making it more than 60 hours since I lay down or had a shower!

Arriving in Japan I was immediately struck by how quiet everything was. Indians are not a quiet population, every aspect of their life is loud (I am aware that probably sounds rich coming from me). Landing in Tokyo there was a lot of bowing, quiet please and thank yous (I think, it was in Japanese) and polite smiles. No one wandered up beside me asking where I was from and if I would take a selfie with them. The Japanese were supremely efficient at processing customs etc… My only hold up was a security guard questioning me over what my earplugs were and why I had them. Again boarding the bus the difference between Japan and India was obvious… When entering a safari in an open topped jeep in India there was no safety warning, request to remain within the vehicle or risk analysis. Boarding the bus between airports in Japan my bag was dutifully labeled, a man walked through the bus ensuring we had our seat belts on and a message was put out saying please turn phones onto silent so we wouldn’t disturb other passengers. All I thought was “we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto”. When I finally reached Haneda airport I walked straight into the airport hotel and asked for a bed, no longer caring about costs, all I wanted was a shower and a place to lie down. So I had probably the best sleep I have had since leaving NZ, after spending 45 minutes in the shower (a real shower that has hot water too) scrubbing India off I collapsed into the best with a feather pillow and passed out. In the morning I boarded my flight and headed to Sakata to spend the next week with my friend Ben!

McLeodganj Part 2 or India Over and Out

My time in McLeodganj felt like a world away from the rest of India. Waking most days at 5:30 by either the sound of the water tank in my room filling or the Indian man next door to me hoicking… Not quite the wake up one hopes for. Ganesh, the owner of the hostel did not see the issue with the water tank waking me up every morning – in fact it was almost as though he thought I was lucky to have the joy of the water tank, perhaps something he could charge me extra for. After waking I would race to the hot tap in my room hoping that it would produce water and I could have a “shower” (the area is in quite bad drought so water is very limited). Unable to get my shower head to work, primarily because it was not connected to any water pipes, I would fill the bucket beneath my shower and then pouring that over myself (repeat until clean)… It’s moments like these when the knowledge that I will soon be in Japan makes me very happy.

My shower arrangement (tap on right is the cold tap)

When reflecting on how I filled my days I realise I did not really do a hell of a lot. I spent a lot of time walking through the area – venturing uphill to Dharmkot, Triund, Bahgsu or downhill towards the Dalai Lama’s temple (and conveniently my favourite cafe/bookshop Illiterati). I also attended a few drop in yoga classes that while not being of the highest standard were only $4 Kiwi so it seemed silly not to try them! Outside of walking and yoga I met a wide variety of travellers. Most notably, the three aforementioned Australians and a woman from America called Kate who is planning on coming to NZ later in the year.
My second venture up to Triund was a great success (no wasp sting). The walk was just as challenging and the view possibly even more spectacular second time round. Spending 2 hours at the top reading, dozing in the sun and sharing chai with various people I headed back to McLeodganj very contented. 

About 1km into my 10km descent a very friendly Indian guy appeared in front of me. As I passed him he struck up a conversation. Indulging his chat for about 15 minutes I noticed that everything I did or said he had also done or was planning to do e.g. He asked me what I studied and I said law, he also did law. He asked me where I was going after McLeodganj, I said Japan, he was heading there in a few weeks. He asked me where I was from, I said NZ, what do you know he’s heading there next year – to Christchurch specifically (once he asked where in NZ I came from). He meant no harm and was nice enough but after 15 minutes I was ready to be alone again… He however had other plans. As I quickened my pace nearly running across the rocks in a manner that was almost certain to result in me injuring myself he followed suit. I could hear him gasping for air as we went while trying to maintain conversation. My answers became shorter and shorter and the guy just would not take a hint. Seeing a chai shop and my chance to escape him I asked if he wanted chai and he said yes he would love a break… I then replied saying I was in a rush so I would have to keep moving but he should stop if he wants. Yet another hint not taken… He chose to stick with me! On we continued, giving up on the idea of losing him I told him that I couldn’t talk as I had to focus on where I was putting my feet so I didn’t trip – he agreed that was a good idea and finally went quiet. We finally reached the point where people can drive to where he announced he had to wait here by his car for his friends. Asking if I wanted to wait with him I politely declined and reiterated that I was in a rush! I then entered 3km of silent bliss (aside from the regular tooting of car horns).

Returning to McLeodganj I was starving and stopped by another of my favourite cafes, Moonpeak Espresso for an iced chocolate, curried zucchini and butter naan – an outstanding combination. 

Another interesting experience I had while in McLeodganj was “foot reflexology”… I am not convinced that the guy who performed my foot reflexology had any clue what he was doing however having never experienced it before I cannot be sure what it is meant to entail. As far as my experiences have now informed me, foot reflexology involves someone repeatedly punching and pinching your feet then in between twisting your feet and legs from side to side. Again, the experience cost me all of $5, so I couldn’t have particularly high expectations.

Outside of walking, drinking chai and doing yoga I went down to the Dalai Lama’s temple – He lives in McLeodganj. The temple was not particularly glamorous or beautiful as one might expect, rather it was filled with terribly noisy Indians who, in my opinion, were showing an appalling lack of respect for the Tibetan Monks who were trying to pray. While the Indians yelled at each other through the temple and took photos in areas you were not meant to, I still managed to get myself in trouble by trying to ask a monk a question. One of the things that did amuse me about the temple was the stacks of McVities Hobnobs and bottles of Fanta and Coke placed up around the statues… I asked the Monk about this and he said they were offerings to God. 

Outside of the temple there was also a very interesting Tibetan Museum. While only small it had a very informative exhibition on the situation in Tibet and the state of their relations with the Chinese. I had no real knowledge of why the Dalai Lama lived in exile or why there was such a big Tibetan community in the north of India. Learning about the perilous journey across the Himalayas that many TIbetans take to escape the Chinese and the lengths the Chinese are going to to destroy Tibetan culture within Tibet gave me a new perspective on the many TIbetans I had seen in McLeodganj and the challenges they must have faced to get to this point.

This is a MANI Prayer Wheel. It is filled with thousands of Avalokiteshvara mantras “OM MANI PADME HUM”. By turning this wheel once one earns merit equal to the recitation of the mantras filled inside this wheel.

As an aside – I had the pleasure of meeting an American girl who told me her name was “Lucky-Lad” (had the passport to prove it) and with her a Swedish/Irish girl who had the most confused accent I have ever heard despite speaking perfect English! The Irish-swede also turned me on to a “cross training” class held at a cafe three mornings a week with the first one being free. So, on my last day I went to this cross training, run by an English girl with 3 Tibetan men and two other traveling men attending we “trained”. The exercise was not strenuous, the girl kept saying she couldn’t believe how strong I was ha ha. But a great end result, we all finished sitting on the floor eating biscuits and drinking chai!

My last day in McLeodganj saw me spend 2 hours trying to post stuff home, an hour trying to find an atm with cash in it and about 4 hours cafe hopping hiding from the rain! 

Naturally I wanted to steal the crockery

Having witnessed some spectacular dry thunder and lightening storms here I finally got to witness a wet one and my god it pissed down. As everyone ran for cover in cafes, shops and under any shade they could find, the market vendors packed away all their goods in seconds, they are clearly well practiced at this. Initially failing on the raincoat front I used my pack cover as my rain coat, thankfully my friend Jess quickly said just borrow mine, you look ridiculous (and I did).

Farewelling my newfound friends I boarded my 12 hour bus to Delhi (a journey of just under 500km)… 

With a very shanti shanti approach to departure we left McLeodganj 1.5 hours late and in the first half hour of travel we managed to cover only 4km. This was due to the quality of the roads being worse than post-earthquake Christchurch with half the width and twice the amount of traffic. At one point, trying to pass another bus moving in the other direction the conductor of the bus stood with the door open telling the driver how close he was to the cliff edge while the driver focused on not taking off the other bus’s wing mirror. As the conductor continually said “chulo chulo” (meaning keep going/go) I realised the margin for error here was minuscule. However, as I have said to myself many times in India, it is also in the driver’s best interests for the drive to not end with us crashing – his life is equally at risk to mine! Deciding the easiest way to deal with the situation was to immerse myself in my two favourite travel companions – my kindle and music. Putting Tracy Chapman on as loud as I could I tried to pretend I was just on a normal family road trip where nothing would go wrong. 

My bus ride was generally pretty good, I had a fair amount of sleep and the man sitting next to me didn’t smell, both good results. A few people however did not fair so well. Winding downhill in a very haphazard fashion there were plastic bags handed out to those who were going to be sick. Then much to my alarm/disgust/relief at one point the conductor invited those who had been sick forward, he flung the bus door open and told them all to throw their sick bags out the door… Only in India eh? 

Time passed surprisingly quickly and before I knew it I was being yelled at by the driver as we had reached the final stop without me realising. Being shoved off the bus and the driver insisting I go straight to the airport (despite me asking not to as it was 6:45am and my flight wasn’t until 1:20) I was shoved in a rickshaw and off I went through the streets of Delhi. I am now sitting here receiving updates that my flight to Chennai will be delayed (currently only by half an hour)… this may end up being a very long day.

McLeodganj part 1: 9,000 feet with a bee sting on top

Arriving in McLeodganj to perhaps the strangest greeting from a guest house yet I was somewhat sceptical about what the place held in store for me. My first full day in the town was however everything I was looking for and some. 

Waking up to the sun streaming over the mountains and straight into my room was a hot but happy experience. After eating a couple of eggs (WITH yolks) at my hostel I set off to see what the town was like. Full of Tibetans, travellers, yogis and Indians the area is perhaps the most relaxed place, both in terms of vibe and the place of females in daily life, that I have been to in India – with women walking round in shorts (primarily western women- but even that is a change of pace) and having a much more visible presence than they do in the bigger cities of India. For the first time since I arrived I felt immediately comfortable. Walking around the town I realised that even I would find this a difficult place to get lost. Made up of 2 main streets and nearly no side streets I was always either walking uphill or downhill. Spending an hour trawling round the town and looking at the market stalls and cafes I decided to head up the hill. This was prompted by discussions with one Indian guy at the airport the day before and discussions with three Australians at my hostel who all said that Dharmkot, the next town up, was far nicer. This walk also conveniently doubled as my chance to work out where exactly the track was for the day walk I wanted to do up to Triund.

Walking the 2km uphill to Dharmkot I arrived at a hilltop cafe – filled with people I decided to stop in for a chai and a chat. Nearly everyone there was staying in Dharmkot and attending a yoga course of some kind, some doing their teacher training, some a retreat and others just live here and it’s one of their daily activities. I felt slightly out of place, while everyone seemed to be seeking some sort of enlightenment through yoga and meditation I announced that I had come here to escape the heat and really didn’t know much about the place! Upon hearing this everyone was filled with advice, ranging from get out of McLeodganj and come to Dharmkot to “you should get a 6 month visa and move here for 6 months”… I have acted on none of that advice. Perhaps however my favourite person I met was the man in a shirt and dress pants who handed me a leaflet inviting me to a Shemanic Ceremony

Dancing, similar to being on drugs – this was clearly my kind of event!

As everyone dispersed I asked for directions to Triund, I was told to walk round a corner and the rest would be obvious… Some people are liars. Following the track/road for a while I suddenly came to a split, one going left with a car parked in the middle, the other going right with nothing. Knowing that at some point the track stopped allowing cars I followed the one with the car parked in the middle of the road thinking that would be their way of stopping motor vehicles going up the track. Walking for 45 minutes I was surprised the track didn’t rise up given that Triund is over 9,000 feet high, and that there was no one else on it. It turned out there was good reason for this… I had taken the wrong track. I worked this out when I came to a Tibetan Monk temple and asked the monk sitting there how far from Triund I was. He just laughed. Happily, the temple I found was awash with prayer flags all flying in the breeze, it was aesthetically very pleasing.

Deciding that these trees were as good a place as any to take a break and read for a while I holed up on the hill and lay in the shade with my book. Eventually I retraced my steps and found the split in the path again… Knowing where I went wrong I was adamant that tomorrow would be fine! I returned to Dharmkot where I found yet another cafe full of yogis who I sat and had lunch with. 

Eventually returning to McLeodganj I found a drop in yoga class just steps away from my hostel that I decided to attend. The class had about 12 people in it and was led by a lovely German (I think) woman, Vijay. Vijay was lovely and for the most part a good teacher, she did however insist on calling ‘toes’ ‘fingers’ and ‘fingers’ ‘toes’ which I found progressively funnier as the class went on… The high point for me being when she told us to stand only on our fingers and stretch our toes to the sky (no one else in the class seemed to find the confusion at all funny!).

Returning to my hostel I was thrilled to see the three lovely Australians I met that morning sitting on the rooftop. I was determined that we should become friends. The friend targeting commenced. I asked them about their travels and plans, learning the two boys were in a band together and the girl had just done her yoga teacher training in Nepal, I diverted the conversation towards dinner and said I had been told of a nice cafe to go to. HOOK, LINE AND SINKER. They took the bait and suggested we all go have dinner together at the place I knew of. Googling the place before we left I thought it was just below the town. As we descended down the hill and the town of McLeodganj disappeared behind us I became mildly apprehensive that I had got us lost… Not a good way to cement a friendship. We continued to walk down an unlit road with cars and motorbikes hooning towards us periodically when out of the blue a small block of shop emerged that thankfully contained the cafe Illiterati that I had suggested. The cafe was great, doubling as a bookshop and the food was delicious, if only a little slow (Dad you would have walked out). I had a ball and they seemed to tolerate my company well. I considered the evening an absolute win on the friendship front. 

Waking up to the not so peaceful sound of the water tank in my room filling at 5:00am I was unable to sleep so I decided to get up and tackle Triund. 

Sunrise view from my hostel

While the walk was only 9km (ish… Indian measurement isn’t all that accurate) it rose up 1.4km so I was told it took 4 hours ish. Setting off from McLeodganj at 6:00am I walked up past Dharmkot and the right way round the original track. About 1 hour in I reached the spot where cars had to stop and signed the register saying that I was going into the mountains and stopped for a couple of Vegemite crackers (Vegemite courtesy of Jo, the Australian from my tour).

Here the track turned into forest type land and was very rocky but not all that steep. The track was empty apart from a few Monks walking downhill. Every now and again I would round a corner that would either give me a great view down the valley or a clear view up to the mountains.
Putting Pam’s selfie stick to good use
The track was sporadically littered with chai shops and with 3.5km to go I stopped to take in the view and enjoy what I like to call Indian crack (due to it’s addictive nature), a masala chai.

While chai is delicious all of the time I definitely think it is made more delicious when consumed post/during-exercise! The owner of the shop sat with me and explained to me that he got up every morning at 5:00am and walked up the hill to open the chai shop, his son later followed with the ponies carrying any supplies needed for the shop – he has done this for the past 34 years! Leaving the chai shop I pressed on up the hill, the terrain became steeper and rockier with rock hopping becoming a more crucial element of moving forward than walking. 5 minutes away from the top the terrain changed again to undulating grass that turned into a plateau. The view was spectacular, a view right down the valley to Dharmkot and McLeodganj to my back and the mountains ahead of me.

Settling in on a rock to admire the view the land around me was a hive of activity, people packing up tents, taking photos and drinking chai, I however relished my space on the rock above them all just taking in the view. As I enjoyed my 4th chocolate bar of the entire trip (to India, not up the hill) and peeled my mango my enjoyment was cut short… I was stung on the finger by a wasp. Bastard. My finger promptly started swelling and a rash developed down my arm. Venturing to the nearest chai shop to ask if they had any antihistamines I was greeted with confusion, and then the offer of either a bandaid, or a spray. Opting for the spray option thinking it might be vaguely useful I watched the man pour water into a spray bottle and spray my hand. I have no idea what this was meant to do but I can confirm it was no help whatsoever. Assuring the chai walla he was very helpful and thanking him I started my trip back to McLeodganj for an antihistamine. 

Stopping at the other chai shop I asked again for an antihistamine – while he had no such thing he gave me a complimentary cup of chai while chattering about the medicinal properties of the spices. Stoked with the free chai but with a hand that was growing at an alarming rate I downed the drink and kept moving. By the time I reached McLeodganj two of my fingers were akin to sausages and my palm had begun to puff – the Australians thought this was quite a funny sight. 

Luckily the antihistamine kicked in and my fingers became slightly more mobile again. 

Despite being covered in dust and dirt I was unable to shower as the water for the day had yet again run out. Baby wipes to the rescue I made myself slightly more presentable and went into town for lunch.

Sitting in Moonpeak Espresso, drinking an iced chocolate, eating a grilled eggplant toastie and reading my book I began to understand the appeal many westerners see in living in an area like Himachal Pradesh for a period of their lives – yoga, hiking, diverse population and home comforts like western food all within such a small and peaceful community – it’s a pretty good life. While I’m not planning to move here, I have abandoned plans to go anywhere else in India and instead will stay here for the week until I depart to Japan.

The day concluded with me eating a traditional Tibetan dinner of momos and watching Flight of the Concords with my new Australian friends!

Despite the visual similarities to my beloved PSDB vego dumplings they are no where near as good!


My time in India is like this weird Monty Python, Fawlty Towers hybrid where things continually happen and I am left thinking that can’t be right.

Needing to leave my Mumbai hotel at 3:30am I had spent the night before checking and double checking that someone would be there to hail me a taxi as I was told I could not just book one for that time. So, at 3:20 I rocked up to the front desk and there was absolutely no on around, I went to exit the hotel to try and get a cab for myself only to discover that a grate door had been pulled across the entrance and I was locked in. About to go upstairs and yell until someone came and assisted me I heard the thumping of feet coming down the stairs with a shirtless man yelling “Mam, Mam, excuse me Mam”. His jiggling belly nearly collided with my face as he started explaining in very broken English that he had fallen asleep behind the counter and his alarm hadn’t gone off and he was so, so sorry. Telling him it was fine, and wanting to add it would be better if he were fully clothed, I was escorted out to the street to witness one shirtless man wake up another shirtless man in his taxi. The taxi driver saw me and at least had the good sense to quickly put a singlet on before approaching me about the fare. The taxi driver and I quickly settled on a price and off we went, with the shirtless hotel worker yelling apologies after me. Driving through Mumbai at 3:30 in the morning was a very stinky experience – I don’t think it smelled that bad during the day time but my god early in the morning the place just reeked. Unable/unwilling to wind the windows up (I feared the taxi driver may be generously contributing to the odour) I held my scarf to my face and hoped the drive would be short.PICTURE

Arriving at the airport I approached screening #1 (at Indian airports you have to present your ticket about 8 times before you get on the place – the first is before you even enter the airport) only to be told that my print out of my ticket confirmation was insufficient to gain me entry into the airport and that I should have checked in online. Having used flight confirmation for my other flights in India as opposed to a ticket I was confused – moreover, I had been unable to check in online as I had paid for the ticket with an international credit card. Attempting to explain this to the guard he proceeded to ignore my pleas and let everyone else through. I was thankfully saved by a guard coming to relieve the initial guard who knew what I was talking about and let me in. At 4:00am I was already exhausted from the stress of the morning. The flights through to Delhi and then on to Dharamsala were unremarkable. Arriving at Dharamsala my pre booked taxi failed to appear, after 10 minutes I asked a couple to call my hostel the owner said they were 20 minutes away. Passing time I chatted to two Indians who were separately travelling the country, they were very nice and one even invited me to a vegan buffet dinner that night (I did intend to attend but it didn’t start till 8pm and at 5:30 I was already ravenous and ate in town). 45 minutes later two young guys rocked up with a hand written sign to collect “Any Montgomery” – as a Montgomery I fitted the bill and off we went.

The road to McLeodganj is not what I would describe as wide or well maintained. The winding mountainous road has little more than enough room for a Toyota Corolla, yet you are sharing the road with trucks, cars, bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians and of course cows. 

Deciding it was easier to focus on something other than the road I looked out the window – it was amazing! For the first time since landing in India there were wide open spaces, masses of greenery, and pitched roofed houses (that might seem like an odd observation but seriously everywhere else has a flat roof). It was beautiful and felt just ever so slightly closer to home than anywhere else I had been. The two young men after 45 minutes suddenly declared we were at my hostel and pointed to a steep upward set of stairs saying “just up there ask for Ganesh”. There was absolutely no sign of a hostel.

Walking up the dirt path and stairs I started yelling Ganesh to see what sort of response I got. An Indian man suddenly popped round a corner saying “ahhh AnnieI am so, so sorry about the taxi here I will show you to your room” – maybe the two young guys did know what they were talking about. My room was spacious and all seemed well until I discovered I had no running water, at all (or loo paper for that matter). When I went up to ask Ganesh why this was so he just did his wee Indian head wobble and said it would be resolved soon – he would not however specify how soon. Giving up on that conversation I sat down on the rooftop (at Ganesh’s invitation) to use the Internet and phone mum and dad – about 4 minutes into my conversation Ganesh interrupted me to tell me I couldn’t sit there. I nearly screamed… This guy could give Basil Fawlty a run for his money. Meanwhile Mum and Dad were laughing their heads off down the phone listening to me try and understand why I couldn’t sit there (yet another unresolved issue). Repositioning myself on the rooftop I sat and enjoyed the spectacular view all the way up to the Himalayas (I think… A snow frosted mountain at least).

Returning to my room to discover the water issue was not yet resolved I decided to wander into the town. McLeodganj is the home of the Dalai Lama and has a very large Tibetan population. Walking around the town (which would probably take 15-20minutes max if done in one go) there was a huge number of robed Monks wandering the streets wearing Nikes and using iPhones – I found the whole situation hilarious!

The town is small and picturesque and while there is a lot less poverty than other places I have been there is still a notable presence of beggars in the street. Walking around for 2 hours and enjoying a meal in town I decided that this definitely isn’t the worst place to be spending my last week-ish in India. While it’s unlikely I will stay just here I have definitely found a very nice part of India to be in at this time of year – on that note, it is only 22-29 degrees each day… BLISS!!

A note on Indian horn etiquette


  • Give a couple of warning toots if you plan to pass someone. Then as you pass them hold the horn for the entire duration of the passing (at night you may like to include flashing your headlights for a sort of disco/rave effect). 
  • As traffic lights begin to countdown to either green or red toot persistently. 
  • If you are approaching a blind corner on a narrow road give a few decent toots so that if there is anyone coming in the opposite direction they know you’re there
  • Remember, he who toots first and loudest wins right of way
  • Toot at pedestrians who are walking regardless of whether you have ample space to get around them or not. 
  • Have your cars horn vaguely altered so that you stand out from the crowd. 


  • Don’t toot in anger, that will generate confusion instead, if someone’s driving annoys you pull up next to them at the first possible instance and have a discussion about it. 
  • Don’t toot at cows unless you absolutely have to… Cows are allowed to move as they please. 

Finally, sometimes horns are just fun, as is noise pollution so every now and again just throw a couple of loose toots out just for kicks. 

A road in McLeodganj – this is the wide part designed for passing!!

Below are just some of the people/things you share the road with…

Mumbai/Bombay: So much humidity

Travelling to Mumbai I was back to complete lone wolf travel. I couldn’t quite work out if I was more or less apprehensive about this than I was when travelling with a friend. This might sound stupid, but when you are by yourself it’s much easier to ignore the voice of fear which is solely internal as opposed to the voice of fear when it comes from a companion’s mouth. Arriving in Mumbai I got a prepaid taxi from the airport as I assumed this was the best option – as it turned out my driver spoke no English beyond hello and didn’t know where my hotel was. The journey therefore was littered with stops to ask other taxi drivers where we were going, one of whom hopped in just to get a lift down the road. Finally we found the hotel thanks to my offline map (never leave home without one).

As I arrived early evening in Mumbai I walked straight down to Chowpatty Beach – a hugely popular beach with the locals the place was full of families, couples and friends. I felt out of place, all on my lonesome and without a picnic as everyone sat chatting with friends, playing games with children or sharing a meal. I was amazed that both on my walk and while at the beach for the first time since I landed in India I was left completely alone – no one said hello, asked for a photo or asked where I was from (this has been a common theme in Mumbai). Sitting on the beach I took a lot of pleasure in seeing things like little girls playing with their dad’s hair or kids running back and forth from the waves yelping with joy (although I would screech with fear as that water is seriously polluted). 

As the sun set, the voice of anxiety set in and told me to head back to the hotel. En route grabbing a butterscotch kulfi (Indian ice cream) I walked back to the hotel and realised for the first time that I was basically wet through with sweat from the humidity despite the fact it was only 33 degrees.

Looking forward to a shower when I reached the hotel room I was sadly severely disappointed when this was what came from the shower head…

I now understand why all showers in India have buckets in them – as the water dripped into the bucket I had probably the least satisfying “shower” of my life.

Waking early for my only full day in Mumbai I went straight to Cafe Leopold – a famous cafe that really wasn’t particularly interesting apart from the fact that there were still bullet holes in the walls from the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Conveniently the meeting point for the tour I was taking of the Dharavi slum met just past the cafe. Alongside 2 other kiwis we drove through the red light district of Mumbai, learning about the enormous issue India has with domestic trafficking of young girls who are then forced into prostitution. When I asked my guide about what the police were doing about it he said sadly much of India’s police force is corrupt so there is basically nothing happening

 to help these girls. In saying that however since 1990 when there was an estimated 60,000 prostitutes there is now only 8,000 – so clearly someone is making changes! From the red light district we drove to Dhobi Ghat…

This is an open air laundromat run by dhobis – the washing of local hospitals and hotels occurs here. It was a remarkable sight, hundreds of men moving below us soaking, bashing, hanging and moving laundry all through the area. Our guide told us that many of the dhobis will have come from out of state to make money and send it back to their family, working 10 hours a day they will earn roughly 200 rupees ($4.40 NZD) a day.

We drove on to the main purpose of the tour, the Dharavi Slum. The largest slum in India, and certainly one of the largest slums in the world. Estimates of the population of the slum vary but our guide suggested that when spread over the area there would be 500,000 people per square kilometre (the rest of Mumbai is about 30,000 per square kilometre). This slum is very productive, 80% of India’s plastic recycling occurs here as well as a strong pot making and leather making industries. However, there is still enormous poverty and a huge problem of child labour throughout the slum. Moreover, the conditions the workers endure are hazardous and no doubt shorten their life spans significantly.

Walking through the slum was unreal. The plastic recycling area saw men and young boys sorting, melting, cleaning, and drying plastic, no one wore shoes, goggles or a mask to protect them from the multitude of hazards that existed there. We saw a boy as young as 9 working – again like in the Dhobi Ghat for 10 hours work they will only receive 200 rupees. We then walked through the residential area of the slum. In the Muslim area the lanes were so narrow and low that anyone much larger than me would struggle to get through. The winding alleys trapped the humidity and harboured smells that I am definitely not accustomed to. The Hindu area had wider streets and generally slightly larger houses – in saying that they were still not much bigger than a single room 10 ft by 10 ft (8-10 people will live in that room). Our guide told us that none of the houses have loos, instead they all depend on the limited loos provided. Continuing through the slum we saw the leather production, pot and poppadom making. 

The company I did my tour through is called Reality Tours and Travel (I would highly recommend them) have been working within the slum for 10 years to try and improve the lives of slum dwellers, they provide education, job opportunities and practical training for children and young adults throughout the slum. Their tour guides have all lived in the slum at some point in their lives, so they really do know what they are talking about. Moreover they bring people like me into the slum and generate funds to invest in the slum through the tour I took. The work they are doing is desperately needed in the area – despite having already seen a lot of poverty in India there was something very confronting about the slum, maybe it was seeing a 9 year old working in such hazardous conditions. I don’t know. But I left the tour coming to terms with the enormous privilege I have come from and continue to live in compared to so many people in a country like India who are genuinely slaving away to provide the bare necessities for their family.

Note, we couldn’t take photos in the slum so these are provided by Reality Tours

Leaving the tour I travelled back through the city to the Fort area – this area is filled with Colonial influence, particularly in terms of the architecture. Once more wet through with sweat I first stopped for a particularly posh lunch (at a table for one). Like all good lone travellers I had done my research on places to eat and found a Burmese restaurant (called Burma Burma) that boasted a delicious tea salad – for anyone who knows me or my family this is an absolute favourite at the Bhodi Tree/Rangoon Ruby so I had to try it. I was not disappointed (however my expectations were not exceeded – Bhodi Tree still wins) the tea salad was delicious and accompanied by steamed buns of some creation…

Stuffed but still feeling the need for a sweet treat I found an awesome bakery called Theobroma where I bought a sickly rich and wonderful piece of brownie.

Ready to roll my way through Mumbai I headed across the road to the High Court as I heard I could sit in on court in session – which I thought would be rather interesting. After battling my way into the building and consistently coming across the least helpful humans in India (a rare find in my experience) I made it into the court building. I was however at the wrong end, I had made it to the area where all appellate judgments were stored. This was even better than I could have imagined – with absolutely no semblance of order there were leaflets of paper, some bound, some loose, stacked wall to wall throughout the building. In some areas the fans were blowing too hard and the paper was flying down the hall. The whole thing was so wonderfully Indian! (Sadly I had to relinquish my camera and phone due to the sensitive nature of some of the subject matter so there is no photo evidence of the mayhem that was).

From the HC I walked down to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) a remarkable piece of colonial architecture, admiring the building was only about 1/10 of the fun. Walking inside it was like being at a rave with no music, just the occasion horn of a train – people pushing their way on and off the platform and generally all round the station it was a thriving mess of humanity. My enjoyment was however short lived as I realised I was moving further and further from the entrance/exit and I suddenly had to battle upstream back to the entrance to escape!

Grabbing a taxi I went to Haji Ali – a mosque in Mumbai that at high tide looks like it is floating in the sea, all reviews said it was very beautiful and you did not need to be a Muslim to appreciate it. I did not appreciate it at all. Arriving at low tide I instead found myself looking at a sea of pollution, surrounded by touts and as was the theme of my day in Mumbai continuing to sweat. Walking down towards the mosque I the situation did not improve – I actually became angry as I witnessed people throw more plastic and rubbish into the sea! By the time I reached the mosque I was in no state to enter a place of worship. Instead I sat down on a rock and watched the sea for a while.

The only thing that managed to improve my mood was that amongst the stalls en route to the mosque there were about 4 guys sitting on the ground with scales – the service you could pay them for was to weigh yourself on your way to prayer. I found the whole concept ridiculous and it really did improve my mood…

This is just the sweat coming off me from walking to the mosque and back (probably 600m).

Saturated with sweat I began my slow journey back to my hotel. Originally believing I would walk the 4km my dreams lasted all of about 1km before I realised I may melt into the pavement before I reached the hotel. Giving up and hopping in a cab (with AC – absolute luxury) I retreated to my hotel to pack up my belongings in preparation for my 3:30am trip to the airport.

Peace out Mumbai – I’ll be back for High Tea at the Taj!

Varanasi: The burning, the bathroom and the too honest imposter 

Finishing the tour in Delhi we all went our separate ways with Karyn moving to Nairobi for 6 months, 6 others returning to their respective homes and Jo and I coincidentally both heading to Varanasi to the same hostel/hotel!

Landing in Varanasi neither Jo nor I could believe how calm and orderly the airport seemed, there was no pushing or shoving and so much free space and air conditioning it almost seemed like we had left India. Due to poor planning of our own we each had a separate transfer to our hostel in Varanasi. Driving towards the city was a relatively calm experience – minimal swerving and quite wide roads. An overwhelming sense of calm washed over me – This was short lived. Suddenly the wide and relatively empty roads transformed into narrow streets packed with rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, buses, cows and trucks. Tooting and swerving ensued. Stopping 1km away from my hostel I was greeted by a bag boy and a guide who were going to show me through the winding alleys to the hostel. The narrow lanes that allowed a maximum of two people abreast were intense and overwhelming – something which was not helped by the 45 degree day. Pushing and shoving our way through my guide told me that we were entering the heart of Varanasi, an area where only pedestrians and bikes were allowed (and of course cows). Touts were all desperate to walk alongside me and sell me anything from knick knacks to tours of the city to boat rides down the Ganga – putting my glasses on and keeping my gaze down they quickly realised I was not interested in what they were selling. 

Despite spending three weeks in India already, nothing had prepared me for this. Varanasi is a world in and of itself. As a place of pilgrimage for many Hindus and backing on to the holy water of the river Ganga the area is emotionally charged and even during the off season is heaving with pedestrian traffic. 

Jo and I were both relieved to reach the safety of the hostel! 

After some mild persuasion I convinced Jo that we should go down for a wander to the ghat and see what evenings by the Ganga were like. No words can explain what it was like down by the water, aside from being constantly harassed by touts those there for holy purposes were completely focussed on watching the ceremony, praying and lighting candles where appropriate. Surviving about 45 minutes down by the water Jo and I then sauntered back to the hostel – relieved to be able to sit at the rooftop restaurant and watch the madness from a height. 

Awaking at 2am in the night I very quickly realised that something inside me was not right! Jo and I had planned to take an early morning boat ride and I was determined to be fine for that… Getting up at 4:30 I decided that I would take a gamble and go on this boat ride. After an hour and a bit on the boat I gave in – the game I was playing was too high risk for my liking so I was delivered back to the hostel where I spent nearly the whole rest of the day. (I did at least get to witness a very nice sunrise over the Ganga!)

My day was spent sleeping and going to the bathroom. On one of my trips to the bathroom I found a mouse in there – I really couldn’t catch a break. Leaving the mouse alone I closed the bathroom door and hoped it wouldn’t feel the need to venture into my bedroom. A few hours later I came up with a cunning plan – I tip toed into the bathroom, picked up my rubbish bin and magically trapped the mouse under it (the mouse was very slow moving – I am not sure it was well). I was then confronted with the issue of what to do with a trapped mouse in my bathroom, scared that if I told the hostel they would just release it and it would come back I decided to leave it trapped and just hope for the best. (The mouse was very still when I left this morning… I think it was a dead mouse at this point)

Jo returned in the afternoon and came to check on me. Feeling a bit better, and determined not to completely miss out on Varanasi I convinced myself to venture out of the hostel again. Heading to a shop called Blue Lassi, Jo and I indulged in some of the best goddamn lassi in India – handmade buy a guy who looked like he’d just run away from a local ashram. The lassi was filled with chunks of mango pulp and was all round delicious (how long it would stay in my body remained something of a mystery). 

Feeling empowered by my adventure out of the hostel doors I decided that with an anti-nausea pill on board I would be able to go on an evening boat ride to witness the cremations at the burning ghat and also the ceremony worshipping the Ganga at another ghat. There was something quite overwhelming about witnessing human cremations on the side of the Ganga – it was so far removed from anything we would do at home I actually found it difficult to process. You could literally feel the emotion from people charging off into the atmosphere. I felt like something of an imposter to be watching it, as a person who does not readily identify themselves as religious and with a very limited understanding of what was going on, it felt like I had invited myself into one of the most emotional days of any persons life and they had no control over me being there. From the burning ghat we were rowed down towards the ceremony that takes place every night in Varanasi, it was a ceremony of worship/giving thanks to the holy river Ganga. Feeling much more comfortable here I was amazed at the bells, drums and chanting that was occurring. Again a palpable energy was rushing out onto the water in a way that words cannot explain!

After 1.5 hours on the water I was utterly exhausted and we returned to the hostel. Jo gave me her vegemite and I indulged in a $0.40 meal of vegemite toast for dinner, then absolutely exhausted went to bed for a night with surprisingly few trips to the bathroom.

Waking up at 8:00am I felt refreshed and like a human once more. Jo and I went in search of yet another Lonely Planet recommendation – Brown Bread Bakery – a German Bakery just down from our hostel. Negotiating the very confusing alleyways, where armed security told us to line up to walk down an alley, we finally reached where we thought was Brown Bread Bakery. A rather dingy looking cafe with two small tables, woven mats covering the wall and a shirtless waiter, Jo and I couldn’t believe this was the place. Reading the menu it all sounded delicious and had rather a large spiel about their efforts to empower women and give back to the community. Figuring we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover we each ordered muesli and chai. While waiting for our food Jo suggested she might go and look for a couple of little trinkets for her daughter. Our shirtless waiter told her not to as this was a tourist area and she would be ripped off – how kind he was to tell us this. After waiting for about 15 minutes the waiter suggested we go down the road to their rooftop restaurant and order our food from there… This seemed odd but we went with it! 

(The imposter and his restaurant)

Climbing the 5 flights of stairs to the rooftop we found a much larger and nicer looking cafe. When we explained our story to the new waiter and said we had already ordered food he laughed and said we had been sitting at a fake cafe! We couldn’t believe our luck… The fact that our imposter felt the need to come clean and send us to the real place!!! Ordering an array of delicious food that had absolutely no hint of curry I happily devoured fresh fruit, muesli and juice (sneaking a cinnamon scroll to go). We ate with a lovely English girl who is trying to get out of property management and into equine behavioural therapy – she knew of many NZ riders, including Alice – amazing how quickly you can find common ground with a complete stranger!

While disappointed to be leaving Varanasi having seen so little of the place I was pleased to be feeling once more like a human being and to escape the endless narrow passages that were constantly filled with people. Onwards to Mumbai for 2 nights! Then to the relief of McLeodganj where the temperature appears to peak at 30 degrees everyday!

Tour Post 4: Udaipur back to Delhi

Driving from Bijaipur to Udaipur was not a relaxing experience. Our driver had a very fluid understanding of lanes and safe following distances – we swerved from side to side to ensure that not one second was wasted. Jo, the Australian, attempted to put on her seatbelt which to nobody’s surprise did not work, jammed in behind the seat she asked the driver to fix it, after a feeble attempt at pulling it loose he shrugged his shoulders and declared it broken. The next 3 hours were vaguely worrisome to us but as you can no doubt tell from the fact I am writing this, we arrived in one piece. Getting out of the car in Udaipur felt like stepping into a crematorium, the air was hot and thick and for the first time I really did think that the heat would beat me. Ditching our stuff at the hotel we headed out for lunch and to see the city palace. 
Holding up well at lunch I was excited to go and see the palace. This excitement however lasted all of 10 minutes. Arriving at city palace and meeting our guide I quickly realised I was dehydrated and not at all interested at seeing another f***ing building. I was not the only one – our whole group looked absolutely defeated and the poor guide was basically dragging us from room to room…

Kai, the German giving up and sitting under a fan

Completely losing the plot, I can-canned my way through the palace, taking snapshots as I went in the hope that later on I would appreciate what I had seen.

Escaping city palace in 1.5 hours, Maddy offered to take us walking around the city. I promptly declared that I would not participate in such a terrible activity and was completely sick of the whole affair and wanted to go nap – followed by 3 others I returned to the hotel where I proceeded to spend the entire afternoon drinking water and sleeping (fair to say I was not making the most of my time in Udaipur). Revitalised after 4 hours of hibernation we went to a cultural dance show in the evening where traditional Rajasthani dance was showcased. Paying a whopping 100 rupees for the show ($2.19 Kiwi) I had very low expectations – I was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover I was not in fact attending a primary school’s annual performance. The dancers wore amazing costumes, and did a lot of dances with stuff balanced on their heads e.g. Fire or 11 water pots – it was very impressive.

Day 2 in Udaipur started at 5:00am with 5 of us walking up to the Kuri Mata temple that overlooked the city. Arriving at the top in time for the sunrise we enjoyed what was perhaps one of the most underwhelming sunrises I have seen.

On the upside however we got to enjoy some milder weather – if only briefly. On the walk down we went through the Rose Garden that was teeming with locals taking their morning exercise – I was amazed at the number of women exercising in saris and running shoes (an excellent combination). After our walk we went to a delicious Greek cafe for breakfast where I learnt that eggs in India don’t always have a yolk…

This was a very disconcerting discovery and has really put me off eggs here.

Afterwards we trawled the deserted markets for a couple of hours. As it is the off season the markets are basically empty, many shop keepers tell us we are their first customers all day/week/month. While in general this is a lie and merely an attempt to make us feel sorry for them and buy things, Pam one of the Canadians was not aware of this and bought about 4 things because she felt sorry for various vendors who she believed hadn’t had a customer in weeks.

Next on the agenda was an hilarious cooking class with a local restaurant owner. With a very good grasp of English and an excellent sense of humour this man taught us to make Malai Kofta, Kadai Paneer, Roti, Biryani and Chai Masala. With everyone taking it in turns to cook things we managed to make ourselves a delicious lunch…

Karyn and I spent the afternoon buying fruit from the market and stopping at cafes. At one cafe we met to very interesting men. The first was from the UK and moved to India last December to open a restaurant (not the interesting part). Riding is motorbike to Udaipur he had an accident and shattered his shoulder. Not holding medical insurance at the time he managed to get himself to Udaipur, apply and gain insurance (8 days later) and then seek x-Ray’s etc 10 days later. He seems to think the doctors won’t click on and even if they do he doesn’t think insurance fraud is a big deal. This guy did not realise he was talking to a Doctor and a girl with a law degree. The second man was fairly young and from the US, he was in India getting a levitation chair made so they he and his girlfriend could go to Hong Kong for a month where he is convinced they will make lots of money as buskers. For those of you who don’t know what that chair is… He plans to sit like this for 10 hours a day and make his millions…

Karyn and I left this exchange feeling like we were making some excellent life decisions!

Udaipur was the first city I have been in where I felt genuinely threatened by the motor vehicles – scooters, rickshaws and cars would all come screaming round very tight corners onto even narrower streets with barely even a warning horn that they were coming.

On to our final stop of the tour, Pushkar we took a very well air-conditioned train and arrived at midday. Pushkar is a very important holy town for Hindus and therefore is a completely vegetarian (including no eggs), alcohol free town. Knowing we were running short of time on the tour and that there was a camel ride in the afternoon Karyn and I set out on a mission we had conceived a few days earlier… We were going to buy very cheap saris and spend an afternoon wearing them, bellies and all showing. Each armed with 300 rupees we haggled our way into saris and raced back to the hotel to get ready for the camel ride. Having not disclosed our plans to the rest of the group they were very surprised to see us emerge for the camel ride dressed in saris… Maddy our guide just couldn’t stop laughing. It turns out a sari while not being the number 1 camel riding outfit it in fact very cooling. There is something about having your lower back and tummy exposed that is exceptionally refreshing – for the first time in 3 weeks I was walking around without sweating. 

Note – Jo the Australian joined in with a sari borrowed from someone else. We also tied these ourselves #locals

The camel ride was not an overly comfortable experience. The way they stand up and sit down again is a lurching motion that makes you feel like their legs are buckling under your weight. As we rode past many locals, and later walked through town many women came up to us an complimented us on our saris (we don’t know if they were then saying rude things in Hindi), we all agreed that we felt more comfortable walking around in saris than we did in dresses and pants/t-shirts. By the end of the night however I was very ready to abandon the sari. 6 metres of a very synthetic fabric is a lot to deal with when you are walking around or riding camels.

Our last full day of the tour was spent in Pushkar/returning to Delhi. Again rising at 5:00am, 5 of us walked up to the Savitri Temple. A much steeper climb than the last temple with large rocky steps we again made it in time for sunrise. This sunrise was much better than the one in Udaipur (but still not amazing)

Up at the top of the temple there was a chai wala who served us masala chai and biscuits – it was the best masala chai I have had in India thus far. 

Sipping on chai and eating biscuits was an excellent way to spend 45 minutes. Returning to the town Maddy took us to a hotel for breakfast where he assured me the fruit would be safe to eat – a very exciting prospect here. After walking through the town I returned to the hotel to organise my belongings for our return to Delhi and the next step on my Indian adventure – Varanasi. My attempt at washing revealed to me just how thick with dirt my clothing was, with the water turning black almost instantly (I should really do washing more often)! One benefit of the insane heat was that all my clothes dried in the space of an hour.

We are about to return to Delhi via train and from there I fly to Varanasi tomorrow to spend 2 nights there. Coincidentally Jo, the Australian from my tour, is also spending 2 nights in Varanasi and staying at the same hotel/hostel as me (she is spending a lot more money!!) so it will be fun to explore with her for two days before I return to completely solo travel!

7 hours on a train does not serve my sanity…

I am really pleased that I did the tour. It was certainly a very easy way to get around Rajasthan (especially at such a hot time of year) and allowed me to get used to life in India in a fairly stress free way. While I found the group dynamic to be tiresome at times on the whole I have met some incredibly kind people with fascinating lives (mainly thinking about Pam who has 22 children). I have also learnt a lot more about Indian/Hindu lifestyles than I otherwise would have and have gained a much greater appreciation for why many things in India are the way they are. Below is a map of where we have travelled to for anyone wanting a visual! 

Note the two Rural Heritage stays are Madhogargh and Bijaipur.

Tour Post 3: Bijaipur

Leaving the beautiful town of Bundi behind we took a local train to a very small village called Bijaipur. The local train was a very interesting experience! We were told by Maddy our guide that there was not allocated seating on the train so fearing 3-3.5 hours of standing we hustled our way onto the train, stopping just short of elbowing the locals out of the way! Four of us split off from the group thinking that this was a necessary step to secure our seats. It turns out that our fear was unnecessary, where we were getting on was actually relatively uncrowded and there were seats a plenty… All we really achieved was pissing the guide off because we split from the group! Nonetheless we remained in our separate compartment and set about enjoying the ride. Within minutes we were surrounded by a family of locals, all desperate to practice their English and learn about us. For an hour we chatted (as much as possible) learning about who was who’s sister/brother/mother/husband/son and what everyone did on a daily basis. Our cultural differences were very evident as we chatted, the Indian family had no issues with personal space – three of them very quickly wedged themselves onto the bench between Karyn and I with little concern for just how much we were all touching one and other. A highlight of this conversation for me was being able to teach them the word “chickpea”. Having learnt that the word chana was the Hindi word for chickpea I was thrilled when the family bought dried chickpeas and kept offering us “chana” telling them the English was chickpea they all started trying to commit the word to memory starting something like a chant! They then asked for pen and paper so that I could write it down for them so they could learn how to spell it as well. Another great moment was Pam from my tour trying to explain to the family what “adoption” was. As she showed them photos of her daughters and sons, who were all African American she could see their confusion as they looked at her (Pam is white). We never successfully translated the word adoption and I think the family just left us very confused about why Pam kept calling them her children. 

After an hour of chat we managed to get a little bit more space to ourselves and we all did what westerners do when they travel, put in our headphones and didn’t talk to one and other! I also then had a nap on the train much to the amazement of everyone around me!

Note – Pam has a selfie stick which was very well received by the locals!

After 3 hours on the train we were greeted at the train station by two jeeps that drove erratically for 45 minutes to our hotel. Our hotel was actually a ‘Palace’ owned by the royalty of Bijaipur. In these circumstances however royalty means more that they are related to royalty and they used to run the village and do things like collect taxes… So not quite royalty like Lizzie Windsor.

(I feel like Lizzie would enforce the traditional spelling of ‘Castle’)

Arriving at the Castle was one of the best moments of the trip so far as it had a massive pool and we knew we were staying there for 2 nights with very little sightseeing to be done in the village! I quickly ditched my bag and went for a swim… After 2 hours of rolling in and out of the pool I once again felt like a human being. In the evening we took Jeeps to a permanent campsite where normally the tour I am on spends a night – however as we are here at the end of the dry season and the start of the monsoon season we don’t stay there. Driving out there our jeep’s horn broke which I originally found very amusing until I worked out that the lack of working horn meant that overtaking was increasingly more dangerous as the driver was not able to notify the car/bike in front of us that we were trying to overtake!

The tents were awesome and I really do wish we got to spend a night there, it was like the ultimate in glamping! Instead while dinner was being cooked we walked up a hill to the ruins of a fort. Karyn and I tired of the groups slow pace walked ahead and made up the history of various monuments as we went (when we did learn the actual history we discovered we were quite a long way off the mark). After climbing around the fort for a while we then realised we had completely lost track of the group so we attempted a short cut down the hill. This was not our best idea.. Climbing down rock face in jandals was rather a difficult task but we survived and made it back in time for dinner. Dinner conveniently involved two of my favourite Indian dishes (Chana masala (yellow one) and baigan bharta (Aubergine one) – this photo does not do their taste justice…

Driving back to the palace in the dark was quite interesting as instead of using their horns, the Jeeps would erratically flash their lights to let other vehicles know we were coming. I also discovered that the highly decorated tractors light up quite spectacularly at night – I would recommend all NZ farmers invest in similar party lights and streamers for their tractors.

Day 2 at the palace started with an early walk around the village – as it was 6am and a Sunday there was very little activity in town, just a few tractors on the road… And a lot of cows waiting for their morning chapati. Wandering slowly back to the castle my heart sunk as I saw a large family of Indians surrounding the pool – suddenly my plan on lounging around in a bikini seemed highly inappropriate when all the women were swimming fully clothed. I hid in my room reading and waiting for the pool to empty. Finally, there were just 3 kids left in the pool, Karyn and I bit the bullet and decided to brave swimming in just togs. No one yelled at us and the family eventually left for an outing – only after getting family photos with us in our bikinis… Seemed slightly inappropriate! The day drifted by with nothing but reading, napping and swimming occurring. 

At 3:30 Karyn and I headed back to the village to see what it was like when people were conscious. The first house we came upon had two young girls standing outside yelling hello to us (as usual) – it turned out these two girls, aged 12 and 13, spoke impeccable English. They invited us into their house, introduced us to their mum, aunt, brothers and cows. Their house was a courtyard with two rooms coming off it and a stable-like thing. In total the whole area would be only slightly larger than our kitchen and dining area at home… And 9 of them lived in that space! Continuing on round the village it was clear that tourists did not frequent these parts often – while children would run up to us, say hello and hold our hands, adults would stare and point…. And young men would try and take sneaky selfies with us!

Our final activity in Bijaipur was henna, a 22 year old school teacher from the village came up and did henna for us and she could do incredibly intricate patterns! We were all very impressed, especially when each one only took her about 10 minutes. 

Sadly our blissful time in Bijaipur has ended and we are off to Udaipur – however this is our tour guide’s favourite place on the trip and it means that the tour is nearly over – meaning I am getting much closer to escaping the heat!!

Further note on cows – I have learnt more about the life of a cow in India. Hindu religion dictates that the first chapati (Roti type bread) made in the morning and evening is for the cow and the last one made is for the dog. This means that cows go from house to house each morning to get their chapatis. While I thought our guide was spinning us a massive yarn we then saw cows consistently lined up outside houses waiting for their breakfast and dinner!