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Seasons Greetings and all that lark

View From Ireland to New Zealand (Nov 07-Jun 08) on niscratz's travel map.

Well helloo all,

Hope you’re all keeping well and that ye’d a lovely Christmas time wherever and however ye spent it.. I feel like I’ve done and seen so much in the last month that I don’t even know where to begin telling ye about it.. But before I do, I meant to let ye know last time that I left my mobile phone behind me in Ireland – it was as old as the ark anyways! So if ye’ve been trying to contact me or anything that way, well, it would have been a bit of a waste of time.. I’ll get a new one when I get to New Zealand and send ye on the number then. Also, I recently signed up to Skype – so if any of ye are on it feel free to add me as a contact – my username is niscratz (of course!). And one other thing...for some odd reason, email addresses disappeared from my email account before I sent the last mail...it was alphabetically related...people who's names began with A and B..? Anyways, I think I've sorted it now, only I just realised Ben's name was also missing...so I've made a guess at it this time...Anne - could you forward it to him please - I'll get it next time.. So, sorry if you missed out on the last installment...altho' maybe you're happy about that?! Also, neither Collette's nor John and Marie's addresses work - at least the ones I have.. If anyone thinks they'd really like to read this stuff then send me on another email address for them please :o)

Right so, last time I was in touch myself and Marcus were in Nepal planning on rafting from Pokhara to Chitwan National Park with Cushla, Jeanette and Perry. Well, both Marcus and Cushla got sick, so the rafting fell thro’ and we all ended up going to Chitwan by bus instead – not half as exciting but probably alot warmer for that time of year! Myself and Marcus arrived a day later than the other 3 as we were waiting til Marcus was completely better.. The 5 of us stayed at the same place in Sauraha – a lovely little village on the edge of the park. Basing oneself there is way cheaper than being based in the park and all the same safari activities can be arranged.

The first morning myself and Marcus joined the other 3 on a jeep safari around the 20,000 lakes area which is in the buffer zone around the park. To be honest, while we had a laugh together, it wasn’t exactly amazing safari-ing by a long shot.. Lots of birds, some deer and monkeys, but that was about the size of it.. Both Perry and Cushla left after that – they had less time than the rest of us and had to motor on.. Myself and Marcus decided, on speaking to a really sound guide called Dipak, to do a two and a half day walk thro’ the jungle!!! At first I thought we were mad given how potentially dangerous some of the animals there are (tigers, rhinos, and sloth bears being the ones you’d least like to meet up close!), but it turned out to be a really lovely way of doing a safari. We also managed to twist Jeanette’s rubber arm and she joined us for the few days..

Trying to remember it...it’s difficult...we didn’t see any tigers (phew!) but did see some tiger tracks and, apparently, smelt some tiger scent...well, our two guides did, but all we could smell anytime they stuck the end of a stick with a bit of earth and the scent of an animal on it up towards our noses was the earth! On the first afternoon our Dipak gave us a whistle (the sign to pay attention) and pointed ahead of us (there was a bend in the track – we couldn’t see what was ahead) and started to run quietly... It turned out we were all running after a sloth bear, which fortunately was running away from us, very quickly – I’m glad he didn’t decide to chase us or anything – we wouldn’t have had a chance!! I really did get a sense of going against my natural instincts chasing a bear...We also had a close encounter with a rhino – and you really wouldn’t want to get chased by one of them – they’d trample you to death no hassle! That was a scarey one as we couldn’t see the rhino properly, we just heard a sudden noise that sounded like it was coming towards us and we all did exactly what we were told not to do...started to run away!! But the noise stopped so so did we..

We took breaks for food and siestas in high look out towers. Sometimes we’d just sit down in the middle of the track and listen for sounds of animals..or meditate..Dipak was quite a spiritual guy...really interesting to talk to – both of the guides were. They knew so much about the jungle and the animals in it. The huge benefit of walking around was how relatively quiet we were compared with jeeps. But had we come face to face with a tiger (and it has happened...altho’ it’s not very common at all – cats are nocturnal afterall) I’d certainly have been wishing for a jeep!

Anyways, we spent more time at Chitwan than we’d originally intended as I wasn’t feeling too well for a day or so before the walk so we spent our time chilling out by the river. It was quite tropical in alot of ways and very relaxing.. One morning Marcus and Jeanette took part in the elephant bathing along the river. There are lots of elephants at Chitwan – I don’t think there are any wild ones left in the park. The elephants are used to take people into the park. I’m not sure that elephants need to be bathed everyday – but it’s a way for someone to make money. I couldn’t join in the elephant bathing experience...watching one American tourist “yee-hawing” on one of the elephants like it was some sort of toy just turned me off.. It reminded me a little of animals being made do tricks in a circus. Marcus and Jeanette really enjoyed the experience all the same and I guess there aren’t many places in the world you can have an experience like that..

After Chitwan Jeanette headed back to Kathmandu and myself and Marcus headed off on our own...until this point we were able to count on one hand the number of dinners we’d had just the 2 of us in the 5 or so weeks we’d been travelling... We headed for Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha – or so they say – I guess they’re right?! It’s a small place near the Indian border and there’s not much to see there really. There was the Maya Devi Temple where the birth actually took place. And there’s the Lumbini Development Zone where there are lots of temples built and being built by Buddhists from around the world. We visited the Maya Devi Temple on the evening we arrived there and the LDZ the following morning by bike. That was it really – we left after that – headed for India ..

On the way to the Indian border we had a 6 km journey on the roof of a jeep – sooo exciting!! I was dying to travel on top of a bus/jeep/anything!! It was a bit scarey tho’ – not much to hold onto properly – well a roof-rack thing, but not much else...and they drive way too fast over there and do really risky overtaking.. We got there in one piece fortunately and walked across the border to India ...

Some pics from Nepal: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626474766800/

India, I really don’t know where to begin here...there’s so much to tell and yet I’d never paint a real picture – you’d need video with smells and still you wouldn’t really appreciate it without going there. There are so many people, so many of them just stare at you. Fortunately I didn’t experience anything other than staring! Gone was the organisation of Nepal – what time would the bus go from the border to Gorakpur (a stopover for a night)? When it was full? What sort of time was that?!?!! We spent 2 hours moving from a bus to a jeep and then to another bus before we finally left the border! That was half the amount of time spent there by 2 French guys we met – they were not very happy at all!! And at one point, it was dark at this stage, our bus decided to go off the main road onto some back road and it came off the road a little – all the locals got off and started walking!! Fortunately it got itself back on the road and we made it safely the rest of the way to Gorakpur. We only took the one bus in India – every other time we took the train. But that wasn’t much better. Not one of the trains (now we only took 3 so it’s hardly enough to judge!) that we took left on time. One hour late was good, but they were as late as 3 hours! So basically, India isn’t that easy to travel around. It’s takes time. You need alot of patience and a good book! People are forever bugging you about something – begging for food/money, offering you “special price” autorickshaws/taxis/whatever, offering you whatever they had for sale. At the beginning I’d quite politely say no – but pretty quickly I learned to ignore completely, because despite being ignored, some of them would follow you and call out sir or madam or whatever up to 30 times before they’d walk away – we counted!! I think Marcus found it more difficult than I did – I’m not sure he’d rush back to India . But altho’ I found it annoying sometimes, other times it made me laugh – that’s really the only way to deal with it. The other thing about India is it’s so filthy – dirty hands, fingernails and clothes every single day – it was impossible to stay clean.

Anyways, our first major stop in India was Varanasi . This was an amazing city. It’s built on the river Ganges which is a very sacred river for Hindus. Hindus bathe in the river water and wash their clothes in it – it’s very dirty water – I wouldn’t even put a finger in! We stayed in a hotel in the old town along the ghats which are the steps leading down to the river. There was so much to be seen from the hotel balcony never mind from just walking along the riverside. Pretty much all but 2 of the ghats are for bathing. The other 2 are the burning ghats for cremations. Those are amazing. There are bodies burning from morning til night and one of them is a 24 hour one! People from all over the city bring their dead here to burn them and then put their ashes into the river. What type of wood you use to burn the body depends on what you can afford – there’s a certain weight necessary to burn a body completely. Richer people can choose more expensive wood but poorer people have to make do with cheaper ones – I’m not sure what the difference between them in terms of the actual burning is.. But you see all these guys weighing huge logs on massive scales. Male bodies are covered in white cloth and female in orange. Male relatives shave their head – or maybe it was just the male head of the family – there’s really so much to it all and I didn’t get to find out all of it much less remember all of what I found out. Then that male wears white for a certain amount of mourning time. It’s all such an amazing thing to watch – all the comings and goings around that ghat – which was very close to out hotel. Naturally no-one is allowed to take photos around the burning ghats, so you’ll all just have to visit Varanasi yourselves if you want to see what it’s like.

We went on a walking tour of the old city – lots of Hindu stuff. Again it’s all really amazing. I learned so much about the faith. The one problem with the older part of the city and the ghats area is the shit – literally – everywhere. Every living thing, from rats to humans, used the streets wherever they need to as a toilet – ok, maybe not adult humans, but men do take a leak wherever and whenever they feel like it.. I wouldn’t wear sandals in Varanasi because I was afraid of what I’d step in – I didn’t want to spend my days watching where I placed my feet!

For our last night in Varanasi we moved to a slightly posher hotel away from the ghats area with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room and massage service... Of course, I only ended up taking advantage of a massage. It was a little chilly for the pool and the jacuzzi wasn’t heated (!!) and the steam room was smaller than the sauna on the Celtic Explorer!! Marcus was happy enough tho’ cos we had a tv in our room and he found the premiership! So anyways, I went for a full body massage the morning before we left... Now I’ve had full body massages before, so I had a notion of what to expect... But nothing is as you expect it in India . The masseuse says to me “all the clothes off” and the modest western in me looks around for the screen or towel that I was going to change behind...or at least wasn’t she going to leave the room? But no, I end up starkers in the room with her and a full body massage there is just that – butt, boobs, belly and all!! Nothing sexual at all I should add – stories do abound about massages that turn quickly into more than you bargained for..this place was reputable, it just wasn’t exactly what I expected! Anyways, that was Varanasi ...

We took the night train to Agra from Varanasi ...another experience where stories of robbery are two a penny. So when we booked our ticket one day in advance we asked for the top class of the 4 available berths – we’d decided we’d settle for the second class, but alas it was all booked for a few days ahead, so we went in the third available class – not the worst, but certainly not the best. There was a pretty even mix of Indians and Westerners in our carriage. Bags were padlocked and chained to as close to us as possible. My camera was going inside my sleeping bag liner and my memory cards were going in my bumbag thing – I wasn’t taking any risks.. Fortunately all our stuff was intact in the morning. Marcus did have his wallet and cards nicked when we first got on the train unfortunately.

Agra was amazing – home of the Taj Mahal and also only a day trip from Fatehpur Sikri. So it was a couple of days of admiring and photographing Mughal (Persian) architecture. Both were incredible. We also visited Agra fort, but after the stuff at Fatehpur Sikri, it was a little lacking. We visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s probably the most expensive touristy thing we’ve done so far in terms of how long you spend at it, but well worth it. Don’t think we did anything else at Agra – we only spent 2 nights there. Then we headed on to Dehli. We definitely didn’t do much in Dehli apart from shop! It’s a great place for bargains and bargaining! By the time we got to Dehli I was well used to bargaining for everything. I got myself a lovely pair of pants down from 850 rupees to 300!! Walking away works best! Absolutely everying in India is bargainable..almost! Both of us sent home big packages from Delhi – my bag felt so light leaving. We went to a Bollywood film in Delhi – we didn’t understand a word, but it was a chick flick so it wsa easy to follow!! There was an interval in the middle – Marcus left at that point but I stayed til the bitter end...well, I really wanted to see what happened even tho’ it was quite predictable!!

I did spend one afternoon touring around some of the sites in Delhi – Marcus needed to be close to a toilet that day so stayed put in the hotel. I went to the Red Fort first, but the queue was way too long. I stood in it for 5 minutes and then discovered that it was the queue for those who’d already bought tickets – well, there was no way I was leaving and re-joining at the end so I just took a photo of the gates and left! Anyways, I reckon it was going to be more Mughal architecture and it wouldn’t have lived up to Fatehpur. So I wandered along Chandni Chowk – the markety area in old Delhi . I had to give into a craving I’d had for a few days for McDonalds chips – but I had the most delicious McAloo Tikka burger with them!! Veggie potato thing...they should get that at home – they’d sell loads..mmmm! I wandered into a Gurudwara as I’d seen the name in places but had no idea what it was – at least, I knew it was aplace of worship but I’d no idea for what religion. Anyways, there I learned a bit about Sikhs – those are the guys who wear the turbans. I also went to India Gate – an Arc de Triomphe look-alike for all the world, dedicated to all Indians who died in the wars.

India was amazing – I’d go back in a flash. We only saw the 3 most touristy cities, so in terms of annoying touts etc, we really must have experienced the worst the country has. The food is to die for and if you can find the genuine people out of the lot that are trying to rip you off and chat to them they’re really interesting. It definitely ranks as probably the hardest country I’ve travelled in, but well worth it..

Some pics from India: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626357064657/

We flew from India to Ha Noi in north Vietnam arriving on Dec 22nd. So far Vietnam is a breeze compared with India . Touts go away after one “no”! No-one is staring anymore, at least if they do and you catch them they look away.. Hanoi is lovely. Really nice old quarter. Very cheap Bia Hoi (beer – you’d get over 10 glasses for a euro!) on the street corners, some very nice people too. We spent a couple of days there just wandering. We went to see the water puppetry on Christmas Eve – it was really cool, well worth seeing. On Christmas morning we headed out to Ha Long Bay on a 3 day tour of the area. First night was spent on the boat and second night on Cat Ba island. It was lovely doing an organised tour as it was the first time we’d met up with a group of people in ages. And we got on really well – got quite drunk in a karaoke bar on Stephan’s night, in true Irish tradition! Marcus even ended up singing!!!

Back in Ha Noi I spent a day sorting out crap stuff – on Christmas Eve I’d left my camera in an internet cafe and it was 3 hours later before I noticed!! Needless to say it was gone and I was gutted! Especially as I may have lost all my India photos – well, most of them!! I had put some on the usb part of my mp3 player, but now it turns out the computer I was using had a virus that is now affecting the usb part of the mp3 player...so I can’t get at those photos and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to recover them. A guy in a techie shop being the recovery process but it’s going to take a while and I didn’t have long enough...he reckons it will work – who knows?! Anyways, apart fromtrying to recover those files, I had to get a police report for my insurance company – that was hard work I can tell you. Not one of the policemen spoke English. They wouldn’t even look me in the eye. They were sooo rude!! If it weren’t for these 2 ladies at the station I’d never have gotten it. They were the ones who ended up signing the form for me – yer man the head guy wouldn’t even do that when he was handed the filled out form and a pen!! And then, when I was thanking both ladies and shaking their hands onw of the men had the cheek to insinuate that I should be shaking their hands too?!?? For what?!? They did nothing for me – nothing at all!! Anyways, now I have a Vietnamese police report to add to our collection. Marcus lost his mp3 player in Nepal and, as I already said, his wallet in India ... I hope we don’t have to visit any more police stations...mind you I guess that’s another part of experiencing a country.. I also bought myself a new camera yesterday – yay :o) And for all you canon-philes out there, you’ll be delighted to hear I’ve left the “dark” olympus side behind and joined you..

So, that’s the end of another way-too-long update...maybe I should do them more regularly? We left Ha Noi this morning and are in Nimh Binh now, about 90 km southwest of Hanoi . We’re on our way south. We’re on day 7 of a 30 day visa here. It’s quite overcast here – not the best time of year – looking forward to hitting about half way down the country where we’ll see the sun :o) Happy new year to ye all...hope ye have a great one.

Take care,

Aoife xxx

Posted by niscratz 02:09 Archived in India

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