2009 Thailand # 7: The Case of the Mysterious CupCake Lizard and the Meditating Chicken

Blind buskers at the night market, Chiang Mai

Blind buskers at the night market, Chiang Mai

On Saturday night we went over to Waialu Road to the Saturday market.  It’s held in one long line of outside stalls along the road and it goes for ages! It was nice to be in an outside one though – nowhere near as sauna-like as the inside ones. There are many disabled and blind people there with amps and instruments – some traditional and some modern – busking for money. This is really good value as you get entertained as you shop, and I’m sure it’s financially rewarding for them, as well as satisfying that they can do something to help themselves. Continue reading

India 2008 # 11: More Monasteries, Spoilt Fish and the Near Death of Tinkerbell

Yesterday we wandered into the monastery down the road. We were able to go inside for their puja (kind of like a prayer service, I guess). The monks sat cross-legged in a row talking really quickly for ages (reading from books) while one of them beat on a drum at the same time. Pretty awesome multi-tasking! After a while, two of the monks blew on long horns, which fold into themselves telescopically. At the end of the puja, the same two blew on conch shells. Tibetan books are long and narrow and I don’t think the pages are stuck together like our ones. When they were finished with them, they wrapped them up in saffron coloured material. The temple was full of the most exquisite decorations I have ever seen in my life. Pictures of animals and various beings are painted on the walls and the ceilings. The fan even hung under a mandala! Now I’ve washed a few ceilings in my life and I know how uncomfortable it is just to do that. Actually painting the complex pictures they put up there just beggars belief! The doors have huge round gold handles on them with long tassles hanging off and even the foyer outside is painted with mythical beings, etc. Now I’ve never seen a stunned mullet in my life before but I betcha I was giving a pretty good impression of one! Continue reading

India 2008 # 4: Palaces, Erotic Art and Peacocks

Thursday morning found us in the golden-roofed dining room of the palace again for a ‘complimentary continental breakfast’. Complimentary? These places charge you like a wounded bull for what boils down to a bed each and a shared bathroom (even if it was super fancy) and then have a cheek to say they are ‘gifting to you’ some cornflakes and a few bits of toast. At the rate you pay to stay in these palaces, you should be at least eating the cornflakes off a gold-plated spoon!

We wandered up to the rooftop afterwards to look down at what the ordinary people in the world were up to and took many more photos while we were still (temporarily) almost royalty. Then, after checking out, we donned backpacks and walked back down to the village. There seemed to be something wrong with this picture. We had arrived in grand style, stayed in the lap of luxury, and now we were walking down the road looking like escapees from a YMCA. Oh well. Once again, variety is the spice of life, yes?

So finally we fronted up at the Shri Mahant guesthouse. We booked a couple of average rooms with a bathroom and a fan each, then the manager caught wind that we were there and came up to insist that we stay in the nicer rooms upstairs for the same price (air-conditioned and balcony to ourselves). He just couldn’t understand when we said we were fine. “What?! Nicer rooms for same price and you say no?!” We didn’t care – we had a bed, a bathroom, a room cooler AND a fan. No problem. He was back ten minutes later and whisked Paul upstairs to show him how much more fabulous the other rooms were. “You are my guests. You pay no more money. This is not about money. You are my guests.” Etc. So we hauled our stuff upstairs to make him happy and it did work out kind of well because it started raining heavily and we had the only balcony with cover from the monsoonal precipitation. The lightning show was great but there was a disappointing lack of monkeys. That’s the main reason I like the Shri Mahant – Monkey T.V. But the monkeys didn’t have umbrellas so they took off to the main temple to shelter. All we had left to watch was lizard t.v. I like lizards a lot but they’re nowhere near as active.

I took Ernie and Leisa down the street to buy Ernie a shirt, as his one was at least a week old and now falling off his back. (Buyer beware in Delhi…) We found him a kurta in a tiny shop and had a good laugh with the guys serving. I spoke to them in (brief and very basic) Hindi and told them in Hindi that I don’t speak Hindi. They looked surprised for a mo then laughed and laughed. After the sale I asked for my commission and they laughed even more. They had damned reasonable prices though and we all enjoyed the moment.

Dinner at the Ram Raja again and Ernie and Leisa gave the kids the metal puzzles they had brought with them, as well as a couple of balls with long elastic and wristbands. As it turns out, this is a hilarious thing to play cricket with. Quite tricky actually – like trying to hit a yo-yo coming at you but you don’t know where it will stop. The puzzles were a great hit. Parbhat (the kids’ Dad) saw them, dropped everything and was occupied with them for close to an hour. Mokesh, the oldest, had six out of seven of them figured out by the end of the night. He’s a very sharp lad, that one.

Friday, we all piled into a car and went on a journey to Kajuraho. We had our own driver – this is the flashest way I have ever travelled in India. Once again, we felt like royalty. A great opportunity for taking photos, not having to avoid many heads and hands getting into the picture. The drive took about 3.5 hours, including stopping at a palace on the way. This palace was definitely not in a league with the ones in Orchha – old or new – and after they insisted on taking us of a tour of it while waiting for our lunch to cook, they ended it with a visit to their ‘local handicrafts’ shop, which was full of things we knew damned well were not local. Cheeky buggers. If they’d been more honest, we might have spent something with them. To top it off, their food was really really average and their “India Chai’ was awful. The prices, however, were most definitely suited to royalty. Needless to say, we won’t be visiting them on the way home.

When we got to Kajuraho, we battled through hoards of touts and made it to the gates of the temple complex. This is a world-famous site with something like 25 temples. It’s particularly well known for its erotic art in stone. This, however, is not the only subject in the carvings, all though you would think so when you see the publicity for it. Each temple is devoted to a different Hindu god and the elaborate detail is just mind-boggling. Once again, my camera was running red hot. Afterwards, it was Tout City again until we made it to the car. We now have some idea of what it’s like for the rich and famous. The only difference being (apart from our wallet size) that the touts had wares for sale instead of flashing cameras. We were driven to more temples until our feet were almost weeping with exhaustion. So we went to a restaurant on a rooftop to eat and watch the ‘Sound and Light Show’ at the temples, which turned out to be a real non-event. However, the food was good. It’s amazing what the Indian cooks can do with a humble potato!

Back at our rooms, I lay down for a few minutes and woke up to find that it was morning. I had what I jokingly refer to as a shower (about twenty drops of water per minute) and everyone else was still asleep, so I went out to the garden restaurant and had coffee and onion pakora for breakfast. Afterwards, I asked the waiter what the time was. “7.15 a.m. madam.” Oh good grief! What’s happening to me? I’m supposed to be allergic to mornings! Some guy in the corner room arose and started his morning with a hearty round of hoicking and spitting for a while, with a background ambience of LOUD Hindi television. I was very glad I had already eaten by then, as it sounded disgusting. A priest type of guy turned up to blow a horn and do a puja (offering/prayer thingy, then I amused myself for a while watching the restaurant’s rogue peacock attacking the customers then went back to the room, where the others were only just arising.

A little later Paul and I ended up at a hotel down the road, as he was supposed to deliver a business card there on behalf of someone. The owner there also had a peacock which he treated as a great friend. This one could also bite rather hard. He had it up on the table eating out of his hand and cuddling with him. You just wouldn’t see this at the average NZ restaurant. OSH would have a fit!

Back to the car, and the journey back to Orchha. Indu took us to the ‘Maya Shop’, the proceeds of which go to the Maya School. We’re hanging out in Orchha now until late tonight when we take a train (oh goody…) back to Delhi.


India 2008 # 3: Centipedes, an Indian John Cleese and Dancing in the Rain

Tuesday morning I was up early in the morning and went up to our rooftop to photograph the squirrels and other life in general going on. The squirrels here are really tiny and remind me of little cartoon creatures as they scurry about with their long furry tails waving like flags behind them. I was lucky – one got very close and I was able to get some nice shots of him. When I checked my photos afterwards I saw he had a very surprised look on his face. I guess he’d never met a one-eyed creature before. I discovered a lizard as well, who also ran about on the roof tiles. Then he’d stop suddenly and pump his front legs up and down like those american cars on hydraulics. Once again, I have seen many creatures here. An especially interesting experience was when I used Rani’s toilet and was able to count the centipedes that were holding a rally about two inches in front of my face. I got up to about seventy something by the time I had finished my business. Never a dull moment.

We had breakfast at the Ram Raja Restaurant as usual and the kids all spilled out to show us that the had been playing with their toys. I got some lovely photos of that also. Then, when I went across the road to photograph a guy who was sharpening Parbhat’s kitchen knives on his bicycle-sharpening setup (like the gypsies used to use in England) I turned around to find an Indian guy photographing me photographing the sharpener. He came over to show us the photo and have a chat. He was also a (Indian) tourist. It’s quite funny to find yourself being photographed for a change. I suppose a white person in a small village makes for an interesting shot.

Indu took us for a ‘nature walk’ later on in the day. He looked just like an Indian John Cleese with his upright stature and furled umbrella. “Come!” he would bark, and we all followed him obediently, meandering through fields and down pathways. Orchha has so many monuments it’s just ridiculous. All of our cameras were heating up by the time we were finished. We saw spotted owls, talked to water buffalo, avoided a seriously over-territorial dog and managed not to find any snakes (yay). Indu told us “Nature is nature. You are being careful in nature. Watch where you stand.” We listened well!

Once again we finished our evening on the “Palace View” rooftop. It is possible to buy alcohol here (black market) – in fact Parbhat sends his young son to go and fetch it. But we drink it in private. This is a village with a major temple in it, so you cannot eat meat or drink alcohol at any place directly lining up with the temple. Apparently just to the side and behind some kind of a wall is fine. Ernie and Leisa went off to their Palace suite (the old palace that we stayed at in 2005) and us peasants hied off to our ordinary rooms to sprawl under fans on the usual two beds pushed together.

I frequently have a giggle in India about the state of their bathrooms. They do nice tidy tile work on the walls and the floors are fitted with marble. They then put two bare wires leading from the water “geysers” (hot water heaters) straight into a plughole in the wall. They bash holes straight through the tiles to put the plumbing through and the basins usually drain through a pipe that leads straight to the floor and washes it. Very efficient really, when you think about it. But the one I couldn’t figure out (funny what you look at when you’re sitting idly) was a beautifully drilled hole in a tile about a quarter of the way up a wall with a rusty nail sticking out of it, being used for absolutely nothing. Rack my brains all I can, I still can’t understand the logic in that one.

Back at the Ram Raja for breakfast again, Wednesday morning (yesterday? Losing track here…) I perused the menu. One of my favourite pastimes, apart from vulture and monkey watching, in this town. I found Veg Bargares (vege burgers), finger cheeps (hot french fries), Auborjin rusted (roast aubergine) and for dessert I could order “Hello To The Queen”. Don’t ask – that one’s beyond me. They serve chai, coffee or whatever, in glasses here. No handles for wusses like us. A bit tricky, particularly pre-caffeine, but I’m getting the hang of it.

Once again, Indu turned up and commanded us to climb aboard his flash new rickshaw, in which he drove us out of the village a bit to do a tour of a paper factory. This is a fantastic setup that employs many local people, more women than men, and gives them decent working conditions and wages. They get material (scraps, etc) in from down south somewhere, separate the cotton from the synthetic, cut it into tiny pieces, pulp it and soak it (no chemicals involved) then form it into sheets, dry it and makes products out of it. They have a little shop to visit at the end of the tour and the products you buy contribute to good local causes. Naturally we did our part there. The products were very beautiful.

Indu then delivered us to the Amar Mahal. This is a brand new palace that has been built here over the last five years and is mindbogglingly beautiful. I’ll make you sick with the photos I took when I get home. We settled into our suite, swanned about in the pool and generally lay around gasping with amazement. Poor Ernie was as sick as a dog thought and the only swanning he did was between the four-poster bed and the luxury toilet. Considering this whole palace thing was all about Ernie and Leisa’s wedding anniversary, it just seemed so cruel that this happened to him. But on the other hand, if you’re going to be sick in India, better that than in a luxury situation than jammed into a train or some such horrible thing.

Later in the evening, we heard some music start up somewhere yonder. Upon investigation, we found that they put on a live show with local Bundhelkandi musicians. Usually there is a dancer also, but unfortunately she was unwell, so we had to take her place. There’s something rather lovely about dancing in the rain doing (or attempting) impressions of Indian dancing with live music backup. The musicians were grinning from ear to ear – either with appreciation of our joining in or because it was the funniest thing they’d seen in a long time – two very damp ferangi twirling and wiggling their hips about as gracefully as a couple of water buffalo. We gave them some baksheesh (contribution) for their lovely music, but they refused to pay us for our dancing. In fact they laughed their heads off when we suggested it. Oh well – lucky I have a job back in NZ huh?

We had to grin later when we took our clothes off to go to bed – Indian clothing is not known well for it’s fixed dye and we had rainbow bodies to go to sleep in.

Finally, we went and dined in the glorious palace restaurant with it’s gold-leafed ceiling and chandeliers dripping with glass. Don’t ask me what we ate – I can’t remember most the names. But it was all really yummy and felt ever so decadent. We even had a Hindi lesson from the waiters, who were ever so tolerant and didn’t even laugh at our accents. Very graceful of them, I say.

Okay, I’ve had enough of writing for now and I’m sure you’ve heard enough of me. It’s really really hot here and super humid so I’m off to sprawl out and concentrate on just breathing for a while.

2007 #14: The Great Hindustani Dhaba That Wasn’t

Kids coming home from school, carrying their slates, which are still used up in these parts. On the right you can see a 'Debta' post - very strong magic. Chitkul.

Kids coming home from school, carrying their slates, which are still used up in these parts. On the right you can see a ‘Debta’ post – very strong magic. Chitkul.

Something we came across here in Chitkul was the occasional “Debta” (sp) stones. There was often a patch nearby where a fire had obviously been going. These stones are two or three feet high, stand alone and are not to be touched. A local guy we chatted with (who’d been university educated) told us that when he was a kid and hadn’t learned about this taboo yet, he touched one of them and his skin erupted with horrible sores. So we made very sure to keep an eye out for them and not bang into any accidentally. Okay, it may not be part of our belief system, but we had no problem respecting the locals’ beliefs and customs.

After a wonderful day strolling around the village, we found out that the new restaurant that was being built (‘The Great Himalayan Restaurant’) and wasn’t open yet, was actually open if you could find the chef  ‘Bobby’ and sweet-talk him into cooking for you. He just wasn’t into crowds so he hid a lot. So I sat at the only other dhaba available (‘The Great Hindustani Dhaba’) while my partner went to use his charms on Bobby. The Great Hindustani Dhaba advertised on a large sign outside the door the following: ‘Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Chinese, Food, Chomin, Momo, Thuppa, Tea, Coffee, Cold drinks’. I grinned as various silly thoughts went through my head. How did they cook their Chinese? Did they have to chase them down first? In which case, were they tough to eat? Were they willing to serve them with Chomin, or were they a stand-alone dish?

The Great Hindustani Dhaba. Get your 2-minute noodles here...

The Great Hindustani Dhaba. Get your 2-minute noodles here…

I have no idea what a ‘thuppa’ is, but when we first got here we were delighted to see we could get Momo (Tibetan dumplings, a favourite of mine) at this dhaba. Except we couldn’t. Because the man who made the Momo had gone elsewhere (no further explanation). Upon enquiring about the ‘Chinese’ and ‘Chomin’ (Chow Mein), it turned out the afore-mentioned absent guy was also the cook of these things. The only thing the remaining guy could cook us in the late afternoon BEFORE dinnertime (at which time he apparently shuts the door) was a packet of Maggi 2-Minute Noodles each. And these took about thirty minutes to get to us from the time of asking. We were starting to catch on that all was not as meets the eye in this ONE AND ONLY daily eating establishment.

So I sat and sipped my chai (which this guy was able to brew with reasonable competance) and crossed fingers that Bobby and my partner got on well together. As it turned out, they did, and my partner came back with a 7.30pm dinner appointment for us. So a little later we left our room and went back down to the restaurant, and imagine our surprise when we found it half full of very loud-talking tourists who’s country of origin I will not mention here. The secret was out! So much for our quiet little tete-a-tete over candlelight with gentle music in the background. However, the food was varied and fabulous, and even if we couldn’t hear it over the talking, there was gentle music playing in the background.

The Great Himalayan Restaura...

The Great Himalayan Restaura…

Having eaten, we wandered back to our room, indulged in a tot or two of Southern
Comfort, which always goes down so well in the mountain air, and danced under the stars to Santana with an audience of bats and a firefly or two.

The next day a few of the local women turned up, and after a few minutes of confusion it became clear that they wanted to see the little movie of my partner’s daughters (7 and 3 yrs) dancing back at home. They were absolutely delighted at this miracle of technology and the cuteness of the girls. We were to see these women go by every day after that and they always waved cheerfully or stopped for a quick chat.

The local ladies marvelling at the technology we bought with us (digital camera) and getting all gaga over the cute little girls on the video.

The local ladies marvelling at the technology we bought with us (digital camera) and getting all gaga over the cute little girls on the video.

After breakfast and chai, I did some of my washing before it came crawling out of my backpack of it’s own volition. Mountain water is cold! My hands became so numb I had to take time out to warm them up again before wringing my clothes. We also acquired a couple of the local-style coats, tailor-made with goats wool (I think). This was most fortuitous, as there is no market here, no shops selling garments and when we enquired, we found that all the tailors in the village were too busy to take on any more work. I won’t say who or where we got these coats from, because as the days went by we noticed that we were the only foreigners wearing them, so we gathered it was just a quiet little transaction with a person who had somewhere along the line come to the conclusion that he’d feel okay about trading with us. This trade transpired while no one else was around and nothing more was mentioned, although we saw one or two double-takes by some of the locals, and the odd little grin in the corner of the mouth of the guy we got them from. These jackets are worth their weight in gold. They are extremely warm and very windproof, and we had no problem with the cold once we donned them. Apart from bedtime, they were to stay on us for the rest of our stay in the village.

Donkey power and legs - the only form of transport in the village. This villager wears one of the beautifully-cut jackets favoured by the locals.

Donkey power and legs – the only form of transport in the village. This villager wears one of the beautifully-cut jackets favoured by the locals.

Again, we wandered around this beautiful place, looking and marvelling. We stopped and talked with four carvers who were working under a tarpaulin, on the new Debi temple in the temple square. They were very nice guys and their work is exquisite. Apparently they’ve been hired by the ‘Archeological Foundation’ or some such outfit, and they are given lodging, food, local brew and 250 rupees a day. This is a brilliant wage as far as India goes. No wonder they’re so content – they get to be creative and are paid very well for it. Wonderful.

Carver at the Devi Temple construction site.

Carver at the Devi Temple construction site.

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