A Travellerspoint blog

Realising A Dream

Camel Hunting in Rajasthan, India

sunny

Very few people's dreams come with two humps and an ability to spit long distances, but I am going to try and claim this as something that makes me special! I came to this strange and bewildering country for two reasons and both involve camels. The first was to witness the incredible spectacle of Pushkar's yearly camel fair and the second was to trek into the Thar desert both to ride a camel and to sleep in a sand dune under the stars.

The camel fair was certainly a spectacle: the desert was magnificently carpeted with the humped beasts, who (along with their owners), came in all shapes and sizes! It was impossible to walk a few steps without bumping into a camel, a huge multicoloured turban (usually attached to a man) or a gypsy child posing for a photograph. Although I traveled to Pushkar to meet the camels, it was the people who provided the most enduring (and strangest) memories: sword swallowers, fire breathers, snake charmers and 'dentists' who knocked out or repaired a tooth (with no anaesthetic or antiseptic, on the sand) for less than £1. Within just 24 hours, we were invited to a wedding, had henna drawn all over us without our permission and had been conned by a crazy dutch hippie masquerading as a yoga instructor. Said hippie did manage to find us alcohol (Pushkar is a religious town so alcohol is banned) but insisted on playing us terrible love songs on his miniature guitar which, as he was over 6 foot, looked totally ridiculous, especially during a power cut, when he whipped out a head torch! Without doubt the funniest moment was during a meal when we were served by a group of drunk boys who tried to pass baked beans on tortilla chips as nachos, and curry on dough as pizza! They totally forgot our drinks and my meal, kept breaking plates and just leaving the restaurant for minutes at a time. They even let us share a slice of their special cake in the kitchen with the 'chef'! Clearly the manager had gone away for the weekend and left them in charge, much to our amusement.

At Pushkar i achieved my dream of riding on a camel. After a shaky start (and almost being hurled off the back of the animal), we achieved flight! Well this is what it felt like, as the camel seemed to stand about twenty feet off the ground, and the walk was so bumpy I am sure there was often a few inches of air between my bum and the seat. As I imagined, the camel was totally misbehaved, refused to walk in the right direction and, on several occasions, had to be cajoled by his increasingly desperate handler to move at all. Having said that - I loved it. I felt at once regal and ridiculous, and the ride (if nothing else) gave an incredible view over the heads of the tourists and across the fair. On disembarkation, my friend asked the handler how many camels he would swap me for and the handler replied, with deadpan face and obvious thought, two or three!! Obviously I was a little put out, especially as the camel was bloody useless, but later I found out that each camel is worth over £500 so it turns out that he was actually making quite a generous offer..

The camel I was given to ride during the safari - who I lovingly renamed Calvin - was even worse. Not only was he useless - the other camels were able to walk on their own but mine had to be led at all times by the guide - but he farted continuously and was covered in flies, which meant I was covered in flies. Furthermore, in futile attempts to rid himself of the pests, he frequently contorted his legs into positions of ever increasing impossibility and almost threw me off several times while doing so. Whenever he did this I screamed, and the guide collapsed in fits of giggles, repeating my pathetic squeal until he was reduced to tears. Unlike Und (the other camel) who sat placid and content, Calvin made loud gurgling noises that sounded unmistakeably like Chewbaccer from Star Wars, and led me to conclude that he must have come from Mars.

Despite the questionable personalities of my camels and the various near-death experiences I endured while on the back of them, I have achieved a dream and ticked one more thing off my bucket list. While trekking in the 'desert' (shrub-land) I realised several other dreams I never even knew I had: I slept under the stars, learned how to make a fire, and woke up to the sun just peeping over the horizon. Spending the day lodged between not only two humps but also blankets, water bottles and cooking utensils, is not the comfiest experience. Sensing our (and the camels) need for a break we made three rest stops. The first was at a local well to refill our water bottles and give the camels a drink. We both had a go at hauling up the bucket of water, but I was completely unable to lift it, and had to be rescued by a team of bemused locals, who made it look impossibly easy. During the next two stops - at local villages - I was preoccupied by an overriding desire to cuddle one of India's ridiculously fluffy goats. The first village proved unfruitful: I chased one for about ten minutes but he was having none of it. The second village yielded much better results. While cornered by women trying to pierce my nose and sell me jewellry, one batty grandma bought over two fluffy baby goats! My life was complete. In, without doubt, one of my favourite traveling moments, I sat with them while they tried to eat my camera case, my tshirt and even my fingers. The batty grandma, despite my protests and the goat's wails, kept lifting one of the poor things up so that he could nibble my ear! Eventually, saved by Calvin's bizzarre gurgling, and our guide's frantic gesturing, I exchanged the fluffy things for the humped one, and settled into my space among the blankets for the final trek back to camp.

Sleeping under the stars that night resulted in not only the fulfilment of a dream but also the creation of various, literal, nightmares. We couldn't sit in the sand for five minutes without being chased by huge black pincer-wielding beetles, which looked uncannily like the scarab bugs from the film The Mummy. So while my days were filled with fluffy goats, my nights were filled with terrifying dreams of being eaten alive. We survived the night but in the afternoon of the second day, one succeeded in biting my toe! (Although why he was going for my awful feet God knows - there must be a toe shortage in the Thar desert.) After two minutes the pain disappeared and all my bodily organs and functions remained intact - phew.

Having always preferred beaches to camping (I admit - this safari was my first time camping, ever), I was a little apprehensive about the whole experience, but it was incredible. Lying in 'bed' (blankets on the sand) watching the sun crawl over the horizon, drowning the sky in pink light, I realised what an incredible four months I have had, and how lucky I am to be here. If only we had had marshmallows to toast over the fire the trek would have been totally perfect! Arriving back in Jaisalmer three days later, I felt tired and cold but fulfilled; not only had I cuddled a camel, but also baby goats and, inadvertedly, a scarab bug - three dreams in one.

Posted by elisaalston 04:26 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises india trekking safari camping jaisalmer Comments (0)

Holy Cow

Volunteering in Varanasi

As the train slowly grumbled into Varanasi station, ending my grueling 14 hour stint on a luggage rack, I wondered what on earth awaited me. Having only seen the inside of Delhi airport and train station, Varanasi would be my first real experience of India. Sleepy and starving (despite all the train food I shouldn't have eaten but had), I was swept up in the crowds heading for the station entrance. There, as if amusing himself while awaiting distant relatives, was a cow with his head stuck in a bucket. Well, the question as to whether he was stuck or merely chewing incredibly slowly remains unanswered, as the surge of people forced me out and into the city.

I imagine "Holy Cow"to be many visitors first words as they enter Varanasi. For travelers, it records (politely) their state of shock, and for Indians they are merely passing comment on it's literal farm-like aspect. For cows are indeed holy, and they are everywhere. My immediate and enduring image of Varanasi will be a cow's rear end, for the roads are so small, and motorbikes so frequent, I spent more time than not stuck meandering slowly behind a cow. (Indian driving deems overtaking too risky a business.) In Varanasi, there clearly exists a very complicated and profound cow-politics, for some eternally haunted a certain corner while others patrolled the roads as if on sentry duty. How the wanderers ever found their way home is beyond me, for Varanasi has the most confusing system of alleyways I have ever encountered; certain of my decision, I would walk confidently into one alleyway and emerge entirely the wrong side of town two minutes later, as if by magic (and NOT by my appalling sense of direction).

Varanasi is truly an assault on the senses, and therefore incredibly hard to depict in words. Simply walking a few minutes down the road becomes a serious logistical challenge. I now have a skill for negotiating pigs, goats, monkeys, barefoot children, dead bodies, (practically) naked holy men and piles of rubbish, as well as the usual menagerie of dreadlocked yoga-practicing travelers and pushy salesmen. The sounds and smells seem overwhelming (especially when in my usual rear-end position) but if you survive, the experience is so rewarding. The beauty of Varanasi is in the colour: flowing, jewel-encrusted saris, red, orange and yellow turbans, orange marigolds and huge piles of brightly coloured powder paint for worship.. The cows also come in a more exciting and varied range of colours than they do in England.

In Varanasi, it is not only the cows that are holy. The river itself is a God, and as a result the Hindus come in their hoards to wash themselves, their clothes, and even their animals in it's waters. After several failed attempts, I finally managed to drag myself out of bed for a sunrise boat ride, and there were honestly as many bathers at 5am as in the middle of the day. Hindus believe that if you are cremated in Varanasi and your ashes thrown in the river, you enjoy (as long as you have been good) immediate passage to heaven. Unfortunate Hindus are covered in brightly coloured cloth and carried on bamboo beds down to the Ganges. The sheer number of believers that come hundreds of miles to participate in this sacred ritual is astounding. My favourite lassi stand - Blue Lassi - happened to be located immediately behind the burning ghat and during the time it takes to drink one lassi (not long) I was guaranteed to see at least one Hindu on his way to heaven. The owner told me that 3-400 bodies are burned a day, which seems excessive but probably isn't far wrong. In Varanasi, there is not only a proliferation of dead bodies, but also old bodies, and I'm sure this is due to the Indians' meticulous preparation and forward planning.

Every day at sunset there is a 'Puja', or worship to the river, and it is absolutely incredible: over an hour long, and full of flowers, candles and blessings. On my second visit I was invited to join in - to place flowers in the river, take paint on the forehead, give a donation (obviously) and then drink some water, which I did without thinking. I then asked the priest if the water in the sacred cup was from the river, and he replied 'of course' with such unbridled joy he clearly thought this was exactly the answer I was hoping for. The water flowing past Varanasi is some of the most dangerous and septic in the world. I honestly spent all night scanning Wikipedia for symptoms of water-borne diseases, and praying to their 3.6 million Gods, hoping at least one would take pity. By some miracle I was still alive the following morning. Although if not, I would have at least enjoyed unhindered and speedy access to the Hindu afterlife.

In Varanasi, Diwali is more like the festival of sound than of light, as fireworks are set off from every street corner and roof top, possible thanks not only to the total lack of health and safety procedures, but seemingly any laws at all! Added to the obstacle course of farmyard animals and the eclectic collection of humans, was now the very real danger of unexploded or 'time bomb' fireworks - clearly third degree burns and missing hands are no big deal in India. To celebrate the festival with the children at the school, we lit sparklers INSIDE the classroom. It was so smoky it became impossible to see or breathe but no one seemed to notice. It was at this point I realised that in a land without fire alarms, my fifth floor bedroom was suddenly less desirable. Incredibly, the school had a roof top, so we had prime position to watch the firework show across the city. I have never been so simultaneously amazed and terrified - roofs here are so close you feel as if you could walk across them, and the family next door were sending off giant fireworks that seemed to explode directly above me! Diwali is like a mixture of New Years and Christmas, and the presents given are tiny parcels of (excessively) sugary goodness - perfect. Having been in Varanasi two weeks by this point, I had begun to feel at home. Our "local" was a tiny hole-in-the-wall manned by a wonderful old lady who chatted away happily in Hindi, ignoring our bemused expressions. On the day of Diwali she gave us all a (slightly suspicious looking) green ball of sugar and I realised, for the first time, that I would be sad to leave. As we walked home that night, past the timed fireworks and the animals, so many people recognised us and cried "Happy Diwali" that I decided India wasn't so bad after all.

Posted by elisaalston 18:41 Archived in India Tagged religion india varanasi diwali Comments (0)

The View From A Luggage Rack

sunny 30 °C

Heading straight from the airport to Varanasi (the holiest and therefore craziest city in India) on an unbooked overnight train was always going to make for an interesting 24 hours. Despite being quizzed by immigration ("how can you not know the address or name of the charity where you are volunteering for a month," "do you really feel comfortable travelling alone around India" - all reasonable questions I had no reasonable answer for), and waiting over an hour for my luggage, the first 24 hours actually started off quite well. Not only did the arrivals lounge have a Costa, but a lovely Aussie couple suggested sharing (paying for) a taxi - result. However, when the taxi dropped me off at the Metro station, and I had to navigate India alone, the trouble began. Negotiating beggars, food carts and signs only in Hindi, I eventually found the station and the right train.

After arriving at Delhi train station, it took me genuinely two hours, six times in the lift going up and down (running past security each time because the queue was ridiculous and my bag precariously balanced), two angry outbursts at policemen who spoke no English and refused to help, an argument with a crazy Indian woman because her group of about 20 old bats pushed in front of me in the ticket line (the saying that the queue is a solely British institution is absolutely true - the term simply does not exist in India) and a small breakdown at the inquiries desk because no one would help and all the timetables were in Hindi, to actually acquire a ticket and the necessary information. A problem remained: a "ticket" in India means simply "permission to board the train", it does not alot the ticket holder any allocated space on said train. Furthermore, there is no limit on the amount of "tickets" which can be issued. The only upgrade available all evening on any of the four trains to Varanasi was an AC Chair at $40! I refused, and so accepted my fate.

After sulking on the platform, things again looked up when I managed to find the workers' toilets (clean-ish) and a cafe manager, shocked to hear that I only had a general admission ticket, agreed to help me find the train controller. He couldn't be found, and so I had to engage in a full blown argument with a man lying down on the luggage rack (and so taking up enough space for an entire family or coop of chickens) in order to aquire a seat. Luckily I was backed up by some locals and succeeded in persuading him to move two inches - enough space for me OR my bag. I chained my bag to a pole a little further down the train and climbed up onto my seat, literally. Thus commenced fourteen hours of sitting on metal poles, unable to put my legs down without knocking out the poor woman and child underneath me (which I almost did on several occasions), squidged in between two men, one who snored continuously. Blissfully naive, I had, until this moment, believed that sleep was a prerequisite for snoring, but apparently not. I also had the pleasure of sharing my "seat" with some old chewing gum, and so I now have grey sticky stuff permanently entrenched into the arse of my favourite trousers, something the locals found hilarious.

As the night went on, people seemed to materialise from thin air and covered literally every square inch of seat, luggage and floor space. I soon became grateful for my two inch high-rise perch.Going to the toilet (an experience in itself) turned into an obstacle course of sleeping bodies. However, once I was settled onto my perch, I began to see the journey as an adventure. Although no one spoke a word of English (and obviously I was the only white person, let alone white GIRL in the carriage), we managed to communicate through food and knowledge sharing. They passed around my 'Economist' with an interest so intense, it was as if they actually had some idea what it's content was about. I gave two gorgeous children Haribo, and an old lady gave me (what I later found out were) pickled mangoes. They were so spicy my lips were on fire for the rest of the evening, but I smiled and 'thank you'd' and somehow managed to eat the second slice. I totally forgot the "don't accept food from strangers rule" as well as the "don't eat street food" rule, and in the space of a few hours managed to consume daal and rice, a samosa, some sort of bread and vegetable paste, vegetable patties, pickled mango and about 10 cups of masala chai (tea) - my new favourite drink - all without washing my hands or using a fork. I realised about 11pm, having just experienced the "toilet" for the first time, what a serious muddle I would be in if I got sick. Thankfully, my stomach held out. This time. I arrived in Varanasi, a little scarred (several men stared at me the entire journey, and one licked my foot - not joking) and sleep deprived, but alive.

Posted by elisaalston 08:15 Archived in India Tagged trains food india varanasi Comments (0)

Let Me Eat Cake

Surviving in Asia

I had no intention of allowing my quest for spiritual fulfillment to succumb to the incessant demands of my stomach, but my sweet tooth has decreed the inevitable - I am really traveling Asia in search of cake. Unable to go a whole day without some form of cake, pastry or desert in England, it was ridiculous to think I could survive 4months without at least the occasional sugar hit. It turns out the steady stream of sugar has become more of a gushing river, but we all have our vices. Having a budget of £15 a day has meant prioritising, and so far cake has come before air conditioning, western style toilets, shopping, and even beer. In fact, the only thing it hasn't come before is fresh mango smoothie, and choosing between the two has become a question of surprisingly paramount importance.

If there was ever to be a land without cake, it would have been Burma. The food there ranged from questionable to horrendous. The national dish of tough meat in oily curry does nothing to wet the appetite. It was only the country's proximity to India (so the occasional relief of chappatis and dosas) and the collection of Burmese owned Italian restaurants, who (very suspiciously) all claimed to have been taught their trade by an Italian chef, that saved me from myself.

Relief from starvation was delivered in the form of (often toothless) women wheeling carts of goodies down the street. I not only found coconut pancakes and (unexplainably) sweet Chinese dumplings, but even a donut! Admittedly the donut turned out to be filled with soya beans, but I ate it anyway! In Bagan, there were a cluster of cafes selling pancakes and I had to fight the urge to do a pancake pub crawl, especially because we'd just had lunch! But I managed to squeeze one in.

I became so desperate to avoid Burmese curry that while staying in the capital, Yangon, I searched for a Lonely Planet recommended Chinese restaurant for over an hour. Not only was it on the other side of town, but trying to find 22nd street when there are no street names, iPhone GPS doesn't work, and no one understands what on earth I'm saying, was nigh impossible. It turned out to be just that. After a futile 45mins of retracing my steps and gesturing to locals, a lady who spoke English explained that the restaurant no longer existed - it had closed down earlier this year. I sat down for a beer.

Only 2 weeks in I began worrying about my shrinking waistline and my sanity, but I was reassured that my need for cake would be satisfied in Vietnam.

Having been deprived of all forms of normal bread for 3 weeks, the tiny French bakeries scattered across Hanoi were almost too much to cope with. For the first 48 hours the inside of these little rooms of joy were all I saw of the country. After filling my quota, and my shorts, I emerged (admittedly a little dazed from the sugar high) into the most incredible food land. The Pho (chicken noodle soup), wontons, spring rolls and fried rice are all incredible, and even better if eaten on the street. In Burma and Vietnam street stalls have childrens sized plastic chairs and tables, which for the Vietnamese seems to cause no trouble, but i keep finding my knees in the way of my mouth. Savory fried pancakes are a central Vietnamese specialty, and they were so good I ate them for lunch AND dinner two days running. A wonderful Vietnamese lady tried to teach me how to cook them during a homestay, but with the language barrier and my horrific culinary skills, the result was nothing like what I had been sampling!

I have had no problem finding cake here. As well as the little bakeries and street carts peddling banana fritters and sugary donuts, there are an abundance of Western-style coffee shops. In Hoi An there was an incredible (and incredibly expensive) European cafe that had beautiful cakes on display and homemade ice cream. I had brownie cheesecake (twice) and almost had to sell some belongings as a result, but they were definitely worth it. In terrible traveler style, I even ordered a cookie frappuchino on my final morning in Saigon. When he put cream and caramel drizzle on the top I almost died - it was exactly like being in Starbucks.

Today is my last day in Vietnam. In preparation for Cambodia, where (I have been repeatedly told) they snack on deep fried tarantulas, I have eaten non-stop all day, and just got back in from a street food binge. I found rice cakes, deep fried bananas and a bizarre jelly donut. I also bought sugar cane juice, which although incredible, will probably induce room-pacing at 2am. I'm starting to wish I had bought some emergency midnight snack supplies, but I need to draw the line somewhere. As long as it is a cake- shaped line...

Posted by elisaalston 01:38 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food vietnam cake burma myanmar Comments (1)

Santorini

Better late than never!

sunny

Gorgeous and enchanting, Santorini was without doubt my favourite island. By some small miracle, it has managed to retain it's Greek charm despite the ship load of American tourists, unloaded daily by the vast cruise liners that hover around it's shores. Unbelievable sunsets, incredible food, and donkeys dominate my memories.

It seems that people do very little walking on the island (quite possibly a result of the particular type of tourists there...) and the choice of transport ranges from cable car to hire car. We chose the quad bike, although only after the woman in the hire shop gave me some questioning looks, the bike with the smallest engine, and a crash helmet. The only way to truly see this island is to get lost, which we did so spectacularly that we ended up at an abandoned military barracks, at the very top of the island. The view was insane - we were able to see to both ends of Santorini and to the several neighbouring islands. It was a precarious few minutes as the wind was so strong there was a very real risk we were going to be hurled off the top, but it was totally worth it.

Santorini

Santorini

While on your chosen mode of transport, it is deemed essential to visit the black and red beaches, as well as one of the hundreds of vineyards. Actually, all three were a slight disappointment. Both beaches were FULL of tourists, and the red beach was so windy that we spend the entire time shielding our eyes from the sand storm. Having said that, I'm glad we saw them, and thanks to our trusty quad bike we saw a million incredible things on the way.

Red Beach

Red Beach

I chose the vineyard with an underground wine museum, hoping for some education before the alcohol, but the ridiculous moving mannequins meant that we spent all our time giggling and taking photos, rather than listening to the commentary. The 4 glasses of wine we were given to taste didn't even amount to one full glass, and the food we were expecting turned out to be tiny, stale breadcrumbs! However, having paid only €7 for the whole experience, I can't complain, but I would definitely recommend going to one of the smaller vineyards without a museum, in the hope they are more generous with their portion sizes.

On the second day, like true tourists, we took an afternoon boat trip to the hot springs and volcano. We were expecting Icelandic glaciers but the springs were more like a tepid bath. We had to swim to the 'bath' from the boat, and on the way back, after instigating a race but then becoming tangled in seaweed, I got such a big fit of giggles I genuinely felt like Greece might have been my last holiday. After swallowing half of the Aegean sea and contemplating signalling for help, I eventually made it back to the boat and a cold beer. All small boat trips go from the Old Port - about 10million steps down a mountain. Walking having been ruled out, and having taken a cable car down, the only option that remained was the donkey. Having already ridden the dreaded donkeys 10 years before, I should have known better. After 20 minutes of slipping on donkey poo (absolutely sure I was a second away from plummeting to my death), being bashed into walls, and wandering dangerously close to the side we finally arrived at the top. Still wet from the swim, I rode in just a bikini with my top tied around my bag. While clinging on for dear life to the oblivious animal, I failed to realise my tshirt had fallen off, so I had to spend the rest of the afternoon in a bikini, smelling of donkey poo. I was somewhat comforted by a homemade triple-scoop ice cream, but have never been more excited to take a shower.

For the first three nights we stayed at a cave house in Oia. These are rooms that have literally been dug out of the cliff on the volcano-facing side of the island. The view was unbelievable.

Oia by Day

Oia by Day


Oia by Night

Oia by Night

On our final night we stayed at a cave house in Thira and watched quite possibly the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. Oia is known for its sunsets, so on the second night we walked, or tried to walk, to the very end of the island. I have never seen so many people! It was like rush hour on the tube. Tourists were sitting on roofs, tables, even on each other. We perched on the end of a partially collapsed wall, where one wrong move would have resulted in impalement on barbed wire, and strained to see anything! The entire thing was completely surreal - not only did crazy Japanese tourists ask to take a picture of us, but as the sun dissapeared the place errupted with claps and cheers! I was torn between feeling genuinely moved by man's (fleeting) appreciation of the beauty of nature, and questioning my sanity.

Oia at sunset

Oia at sunset

I could write an essay on the incredible food we ate here. But this entry is already too long so I'm going to save you the pain and recommend three restaurants:

Roka (Oia) - traditional Greek cuisine, reasonably priced, really cute restaurant. Order the tomato sausage and honey sesame cheese (one of the best things I ate during the holiday!)
Salt and Pepper (Thira) - recommended to us by so many people, it truly lived up to our expectations: seriously cheap, home-style Greek cooking, free starter and fruit for desert! The owner was also incredible, a bizarre Greek parody of the characters from Absolutely Fabulous, she insisted on saying 'darling' after every sentence!
Sphinx - overpriced but exquisite, this was my favourite restaurant of the holiday. The view across Thira was perfect, as was the carpaccio and red snapper.

Posted by elisaalston 14:46 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches food greece Comments (0)

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