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BecnWill


7 Blog Entries
3 Trips
151 Photos

Trips:

The World By Knight
BecnWill's Travel Blog
BecnWill's Travel Blog

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http://blogabond.com/BecnWill




Malaysia, the fool's story

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


It's quiet, too quiet...our entry into Malaysia was disconcerting. There was something wrong, something missing...the trip from the airport was lacking in some way; the car was fine, the driver was nice, we had our bags but still there was something absent. We finally realised halfway to the hotel, no-one was beeping their horn. Nothing. Just people driving. After 3 months of constant noise in India the sudden calm had an unnerving effect , like the calm before the storm. Lucky for us we had booked 5 star, the Swish Gardens awaited us.

On our arrival the air conditioning hit us like a slap in the face from the angel of Fonzie, it was cool, ayyyyyee! Backpacking realigns the values: the beds were firm, the pillows were soft, the sheets were smooth...and clean; something we'd not had for months. It was expensive but it was worth it. We spent our 5 star week lounging, and we even saw a bit of the city, not much admitedly, we knew we were coming back, how many times we didn't know, but we knew we would return...

We had been planning to do some serious planning in Kuala Lumpur, the conditions were perfect. We had maps, we had books, we had a buffet breakfast, there was nothing on TV...the conditions were perfect. There was only one flaw in the plan, Delaney's. The staff were friendly and the bean-tastic snacks were plentiful, but we digress...and we did. After 2 days they knew our faces, after 3 they knew our order, after 5 they knew the songs we wanted the band to play. Luckily we had one more valid distraction, Thaipusam.

Thaipusam (yet another Hindu festival) is either a show of great devotion or a parade of masochism, depending on your point of view. For the faithful it involves piercing the back, face, cheeks (facial cheeks that is) tongue and anywhere else you fancy with some vicious, and to our unenlightened eyes, frankly unsanitory hooks and spikes and carrying pandals and urns filled with milk for the 13km from Kuala central and up the 272 steps to the shrines held within the Batu Caves. Our main reason for leaving India at the time we did was to see this and film it with our brand new spanky video camera, however, our stupidity prevailed and we hadn't charged the battery so it cut out after 5 minutes of dreary, uneventful footage moments before the gruesome spectacle unfolded. This thing is actually banned in India, not exactly the most health and safety conscious country on the planet, so how it's allowed in Malaysia is a mystery.

We decided that we had had enough of the five star life and the hotel agreed so after dragging us kicking and screaming from the buffet we headed South to the cleanest place on the planet, Singapore. Afetr a rigorous customs check to ensure that we had no illegal substances (like drugs, daggers and chewing gum) we breezed our way into the city, as did the monsoon rain. Seeking refuge from the torrential downpour we dived into the nearest bar (always our favourite kind of refuge) before diving out again when we saw the price of the beer. 2 hours later we had finally found a bar within our budget, a hawker centre (surpisingly bereft of birds of prey, but full of canny locals) so we settled down to enjoy our Tiger and watch the city boys splashing the cash at the more upmarket venues on the street opposite. Though concerned for our cash we did manage to prise our wallets open long enough (and wide enough) to catch some live Jazz @ Southbridge, a bar full of cool, black-clad beatniks clicking fingers and nodding to the music. We even managed to get a song played, dedicated to a 'lovely couple', as we couldn't see one behind us we figured they had made the all too common mistake and thought that we were a pair. We are considering getting some T-Shirts printed to avoid the confusion - we figure "I'm not with stupid" should do the trick.

After 3 enjoyable but costly rain and jazz filled days we headed back up to the peninsular to Melaka (if you speak Greek you may find that funny). Our hotel had a midnight curfew which we almost missed on our first night. After dashing through the streets we arrived with seconds to spare to be greeted by the amused looking owner, Mister Yen. When we explained that we had run back to avoid being locked out he laughed and promptly took us out around the town's seedier bars for an all night drinking, pool and karaoke session. Mr Yen is well known in the area and we were treated with the upmost respect, despite Will's singing and Becca's distinct lack of pool skills. Back at the hotel at 5am for a night cap we found out that this was partly due to the fact that he is a kung-fu master and he regaled us with stories of his training and various arse-kickings he had administered in his younger days. We managed to prise ourselves away some time after dawn broke and spent our first full day sleeping off the effects. When we finally rose, desperate for sustenance, we made our way to the mall for some traditional Malaysian Burger King. After filling our stomachs we headed back into the air conditioning inside and stumbled accross a promotional stand for massage chairs. As we relaxed into our 30 minute free pummelling session we smiled and lied to the staff about our intentions to buy, even checking import costs for the UK and New Zealand. To be honest we were actually seriously considering the possibility but the 8000 Ringit (about £1200) price tag snapped us out of it and we headed off to find a disguise to get another free trial.

A couple of days later it was time for the main attraction in Melaka (as far as we were concerned) Intrudu, a water throwing festival held every year, which involves alot of water...being thrown. We had checked on the Melaka tourist information site for times and they had insisted that last years festival (no mention of this year's) started at high (not dry) noon. We rocked up in swim gear, with a change clothes and everything wrapped in special waterproof bags to find a big, wet, empty square where the event was supposed to take place. After wandering around we were somewhat disappointed to learn that the festival does in fact start at 9am and finish at 12, a big round of applause to the tourist board there. In our experience this is a common problem in Malaysia, they have a big tourist industry but don't bother to tell anyone about it. There is infuriatingly little information in the country about what is going on, where it's going on and even if it's going on. But we did know about one thing which was definitely coming up, Chinese New Year - Gong Xi Fa Cai!!

Where better for Chinese New Year than the capital? Well, apparently nearly everywhere except the capital where people celebrate by closing all the businesses and going to their home provinces, namely Melaka. Foiled again! We did manage to catch a big street festival involving dragon and lion dances followed by speeches (in Bahasa Malayan) by the Prime Minister, the minister for culture and the head of the Chinese community in Malaysia - party time! All the time in the city had made us eager to get somewhere a bit more natural and we soon headed off to the oldest rainforest in the world, Taman Negara.

We decided on an early night on our first day there as we were eager to hit the jungle trail early the next morning. Instead of sleeping we had to spend the night cowering under multiple mosquito nets to avoid the barrage of outsized insect life intent on sharing our blankets. Undeterred we headed out into the forest the next day and after a couple of hours eager to explore and spot the wildlife which is so abundant, but not so apparent. Also not apparent were fellow travellers to make up the minimum numbers for the various tours and activities in the park. We're not sure but Taman Negara may translate as minimum 4 persons. We had to settle for some gruelling self guided treks up a couple of Bukits - that's hills to you folks back home. After reaching the top and resting for a few minutes to avoid the impending heart attacks we looked out from the lookout. You can see for miles from the top of the Bukit, miles and miles of trees, they're everywhere. If you like trees, you'll love Taman Negara - as long as there are at least 3 other people with you. We took the scenic route back to the bus. 60kms on a boat looking at yet more trees, and torrents of other travellers who'd obviously been in hiding or on the tours we had tried and failed to get on.

Now we're back in KL (for the fourth time!) but getting ready to leave for Thailand. Malaysia is nice, it's clean, it's safe, it has a rollercoaster inside a shopping centre and the 'best bar in Asia' amongst many other distractions making it a very easy place to waste time, and because of the high price of beer (especially after India!) a very easy place to waste money, but we're not wasters (stop laughing!) so now we are going to go do something more challenging, more adventurous, more dangerous, we're off to the beach!

permalink written by  BecnWill on February 17, 2008 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
tagged Singapore, KualaLumpur, Melaka, Lion, TamanNegara, ChineseNewYear, Dragon and Thaipusam

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Goan to Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


We left you last from a balmy beachside bar in Anjuna, which is pretty much where we stayed for the next month so there's not a lot to report from Goa, other than our mission to chill out and tan up was a successful one. Tan, of course, is a relative measure, but we're very happy with our new hue - best described as a darker shade of pale. Christmas was a pretty relaxed affair. In fact, Will was so relaxed he slept until 7pm; though this may have been due to the fact that we were on a hilltop listening to hard-core Goan trance pumping out at ear-threatening decibel levels all night, and most of the morning, before. Realising we weren't going to be able to make the most of Christmas day itself we decided to take a dawn stroll along the beach and with our souls singing with natural beauty and ears ringing with suspected tinitus we eventually crashed out at about 10am. For New Year we tried to do the same again (the dawn stroll, not the 7pm breakfast) and so, much more drinking and some truly awful dancing later we set out along the beach ready to become inspired. The view was somewhat less idyllic with the shore littered with beercans and the bodies of our fellow revellers, but not a bad start to the new year all the same.

A few days later we deserted Goa and headed for Amratapuri, an ashram run by one of India's only female gurus, Amma. Amma means mother in Hindi, she gets her name from her unusual style of blessing her devotees, namely by giving them a hug. It seems to work too, with over 2,000 residents at the ashram as well as thousands of visitors from all over the world each year. It's pretty easy to tell the 2 apart, one group looking slightly bemused and the other looking slightly unhinged. Being surrounded by so many serenely smiling, wide eyed Amma-lites, all dressed in white, was more than a little disconcerting, and we have to admit that we had some serious doubts about the whole thing. After watching that evening's bhajans (religious chanting & singing, including numbers such as 'Blessed is the Mother' and 'Oh Amma, What a Lovely Hug That Was' - available to buy on CD at the Ashram gift shop) led by the great lady herself, we were amused to see many of the devotees pushing and shoving each other in order to touch their hallowed leader as she walked past, including one lady profering her baby Michael Jackson style over the barrier. To be honest we were becoming more and more disturbed by the increasingly cultish levels of adoration on display, as well as confused by the unnecessary officiousness of some of the devotees, who seemed to be more concerned with herding the flock than helping it.

The next day we headed down for the darshan (blessing), still unsure of whether we would feel some sort of spiritual epiphiny, or if it would feel a bit epi-phoney. After receiving our ticket ('Please pay the bearer the sum of one hug') and joining the line we were dragged by the Queue Manager into the seating area to watch Amma with her devotees. Watching her at work we saw many of her followers becoming quite emotional, and they clearly got a great deal from their audience with her, and soon we were quite eager to get darshan ourselves to see what all this was really about...but how to go about it? The Queue Manager had taken our ticket, and we didn't want to push past the others (which would surely be bad karma). We asked the Stage Manager, he said to go back to the Queue Manager. The Queue Manager sent us to the Security Manager, who sent us back to the Queue Manager, who asked us for our ticket - the same ticket he had taken away an hour before. After a fun discussion where he insisted that he wouldn't have taken the ticket (because then how could we get Darshan?) and a little more queuing we were back in the seating area, with no darshan, no ticket, and no idea as to what to do next. The Stage Manager came to our rescue though and helped us back into the queue (out of sight of the over-zealous Queue Manager) and soon we were approaching Amma with open hearts and minds, ready for our blessing.

Being new at this blessing business, we were slightly unsure when we got there what we should do. Blessing ettiquette, or blessiquette as it is commonly known, was not something we had been briefed on, but the hug-helpers were clearly used to this and made sure we did everything correctly, including holding our heads close to Amma's substantial chest as she hugged us and mumbled a blessing into our ears. Despite our earlier doubts we both came away from the experience with a new energy and purpose, though this may have been partly due to our victory over the dastardly Queue manager and his evil attempts to trap us in line for the rest of time!

Our next major stop was Kanyakumari, the Lands-End of India. The town itself is fairly pretty, with Meditteranean-style buildings facing the sea and is also one of the holiest places in India, but then so are Varanasi, Rishikesh, Kolkata, in fact pretty much everywhere has a claim to be the holiest place in India. They have a plethora of holy places (especially the roads, as Bec discovered a few weeks before by falling straight in one!), maybe they should have a holy-off and decide the thing once and for all...but back to Kanyakumari. One of it's main attractions is India's statue of liberty, but this might be better described as the statue of poetry as it is dedicated to Thiruvallularalaralalalaaraalala, the most revered poet in recent times and a nationl symbol of Indian-ness. It stands 133ft tall, representing the 133 verses of his seminal work entitled 'Oooh, isn't India Holy'....or some such. The other thing that stood out about the town was the food, which is the worst we've had in India, it's all bad, it's wholey shit, so despite trying several different eateries we left for Pondicherry with empty stomachs, but luckily for us that's not a bad way to arrive in Pondicherry, which has some of the best food in India. It's no coincidence that the territory used to be run by the French rather than the Brits, you really can taste the difference, which is what we did for the next 2 days before moving on to our last stop and our last day on the subcontinent, Chennai.

The Lonely Planet was singularly scathing about Chennai, so it was no surprise that it was in fact one of the friendliest and most entertaining places we'd visited. Walking randomly around we stumbled into an amazing club, which included India's biggest Miami Vice & Lional Richie fan (Miami Vice Jacket, Lionel's bubble-perm). We, of course had to go back and pack, ready for our flight to Kuala Lumpur the next day, so with a heavy heart we left for our hotel, but as an added bonus we were both given flags by local Congress party members who had been holding a rally that day. It was a stange end to a strange trip in a strange country, one that we were looking forward to leaving, but also somewhat unexpectedly look forward to returning to one day.

Conclusions on a Country - Describe India in 10 words or less

India's a little bit scary, a lot of the time.
A place of hard beds, hot heads & early weds.
Delhi belly - often smelly - maybe best to bring your wellies.
Keep your eyes and ears open, but close your nose.
Facial hair - everywhere; people stare if you're not from there.

Please feel free to add your own!!

permalink written by  BecnWill on January 20, 2008 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
tagged Amma, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Falling and MiamiVice

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Long Time No Sea

Anjuna, India


We arrived in Delhi for the start of Divali, the festival of lights, breaklights in our case. The bus was the most comfortable that we've been on with air conditioning and without the gaggle of local raconteurs we normally tend to attract on our travels. This was lucky as the 5 mile traffic jam containing the thousands of other Diwaliers meant a leisurely approach to the city. Our introduction to the festival was not such a relaxed experience and for us mostly consisted of the disappointment of early closing times and being burnt by firecrackers thrown by the local youths! Fireworks were the order of the day and on top of the cows, potholes and rickshaws we spent most of our time ducking and weaving through the streets to get food before going back to the safety of our hotel bunker. However, we were only staying in delhi for a short time so after 2 days in tin hats we were on a bus escaping to the safety and sanctuary of the Himilayan Foothills.

Rishikesh is where the Beatles stayed in ye olde 1960's and wrote most of the White Album but anyone expecting any rock'n'roll style debauchery (not us...) would be greatly disappointed. There is no alcohol (or even meat!) for 11kms of winding mountain roads, making it a perfect place for yoga and other spiritual pursuits. Sadly, our spiritual experiences normally involve gin so this lead to earlier nights than usual...though no earlier mornings. Our planned 7:30am yoga session never had a chance but we did manage to get to the 4:30pm session each day, and even saw some improvement along the way. Our instructor Yogi Bear (again, names have been changed to protect the innocent) was certainly bendier than the average bear and wowed us daily with his flexibility, patience and tranquil tones (he loves his Om Chanting). We may have a long way to go before we can rival his skills, but it certainly left us with a goal to aim for. Too much of a good (for you) thing can be dangerous so after 10 days we're back on the road to return to Delhi and the real world.

With our chakras aligned and our karmas calmed we're back on the tourist track to see the Gandhi Smitri, a memorial museum dedicated to India's most famous all round good chap and situated at the spot where he was assasinated by India's 478th most famous nutjob. As ever our timing was immaculate and our visit coincided with a UN childrens journalist conferance (though they all seemed to be way older than us?) so most of the site was closed, but we did get to read a lot and saw Ghandi's spoon, specs and sandels, and of course see the actual spot where he died. We'd include a picture but unfortunately our camera followed his lead and packed in just before we got there.

After a few more days of wandering around soaking up the sights, sounds (but mostly smells) we're off again, to Udaipur, famous for it's Lake Palace which Bond fans will remember as the killer circus hotties' training camp from Octopussy. Luckily enough it's shown all over town on a nightly basis at 007pm so we're able to squeeze in some sightseeing before the movie. The City Palace (palaces are ten a penny round here) was huge, with hundreds of exhibits nearly all of which were dedicated to it's former resident Maharashtra Prabhat Singh...and his horse. He seemed a decent enough guy but we were more interested in the horse which seemed to have some identity issues. They also had a sculpture park and a horrific government museum which we couldn't take pictures of, probably because of the Pet Cemetary style taxidermy on display. With our laser pens at the ready we hopped in the Aston Martin to go and see the show. India used to be a much smaller place back when they were filming, according to Roger Moore the Taj Mahal, the Varanasi Ghats and the Lake Palace are all within autorickshaw distance of Delhi, or perhaps the research budget was blown on his cheesy lines, but we loved it anyway.

The owners of our guesthouse were some of the nicest people that we have met in India, which was a shame as we were only staying one night. They insisted on having tea and cake with us before we left, at least we think it was cake. It's the only way we could think to describe the moist, yellow blocks of vinegar flavoured material we were presented with. We managed to escape further culinary delights to catch our bus to Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, the biggest film industry in the world. They have made over 60,000 films here and the most amazing thing is that they have only had to use 7 storylines to do it. If you've never seen a Bollywood movie here's how they go. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl gets wooed, girls father gets annoyed, boy wins over father through defeat of bad sort, father relents, everyone gets married. Insert a few song and dance numbers along the way and you have yourself the next smash hit in India. Because of the film industry Mumbai is the home of India's beautiful people and has prices to match, we indulged ourselves in one of the slickest bars we have ever been (allowed) in. Perched on the top of one the many 5 star hotels along the beach, with the calming sound of it's toxic water lapping on the shore below, we milked our cocktails for all they were worth and ate as many of the free snacks as we could handle, before sloping off to our not so glamourous guest house. Mumbai is one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan places we have been to, there were even non-western girls drinking in the bars! But we haven't come here for city-slicking and soon we're heading south to Goa for a holiday from our holiday. We're writing to you now from a beachside bar with the sounds of the non-toxic but rather rocky waters below us, which will be our home for the next month (the beachside, not the bar...honest). More to come when we've got some sun...

permalink written by  BecnWill on December 4, 2007 from Anjuna, India
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
tagged Goa, Delhi, IdentityIssues, Prabhat, Udaipur and Rishikesh

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Culture...Shock!

Jaipur, India


After a brief stay in Kolkata we headed to Varanasi, a tourist trap even by Indian standards. Our huge backpacks worked their usual magnetic attraction to the various touts, tuk-tuk drivers and rickshaw wallahs who are crowded outside the station, ready to pounce with offers of help, hotels and plastic crap for us to buy and providing useful information about England ("London is the capital of England!", "David Beckham is from England." - "Yeah, we know"). Luckily our hotel had agreed to provide transport from the station. We thought that this was just a nice gesture but in fact it is to stop innocent (gullible) travellors falling for the stories from commission earning drivers who often claim that the hotel you wish to go to is, in fact, infested with cockroaches, gangsters or, even worse, gangster cockroaches and has burnt down anyway so there is no point going. Luckily they always know a lovely place nearby which costs just a little bit more than your original choice and is instead filled with helpful staff and fairy cakes and candyfloss and magic beans.

Safe in the knowledge that we are in fact going to our hotel of choice we sit back in our auto-rickshaw ready to soak up the atmosphere of the Hinduism's holiest city. Our ears are ringing, luckily it's not tinitus - the roads are heaving with bicycles and cycle-rickshaws weaving between each other and any man, woman or beast daring enough to try to cross the roads. Of the three only beasts are safe, traffic stops for no man, cows and dogs are OK though. If you are planning to come to India forget the green cross code, but dig out that pantomime cow costume that you thought you'd never use again. Cows are sacred here, but apparently people are fair game.

The rickshaw couldn't take us right up to the hotel as the roads in Varanasi stop about 500m from the banks of the Ganges, becoming instead a maze of meandering alleyways between tightly packed and towering buildings looming up on either side. As we follow our guide, turning left at this alley and right the next we consider how this could be very complicated if drunk...however, Varanasi is predominantly a dry city so there's little risk of that. We arrive, with no idea of exactly where we are in this labirynth of a city, despite our best intentions to look out for landmarks as the alleys all seem to look the same, but no matter - we're here! We head up to the rooftop restaurant for some authentic Indian cuisine (Bec has a pizza and Will gets slightly closer with an om-elette - apologies for the pun, but you should expect nothing less) and we sit down to chill and drink in the panoramic views.

We spent the next day in full tourist mode, strolling alongside the ghats which line the banks of the Ganges. These are a series of steps leading into the river and are an integral part of Varanasi life. They are used for everything from washing clothes to cattle, as well as for swimming, bathing and drinking. It's hot and the waters look tempting, we'd go for a swim but the Bible (Lonely Planet) cheerfully informs us that the water is considered septic, with no oxygen content but with 10,000 times the safe level of faecal content. We've taken enough shit on this trip already so we decide against it.

The Ghats are also used for cremating the dead as the waters of the Ganges are supposed to allow those whose ashes are scattered here an escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. Our hotel is situated close to Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat. This comes in handy as later that night when we get lost (not for the last time) we are able to follow the dead bodies as they are carried through the streets on stretchers wrapped in bright, multicoloured cloths.

The next morning we took a dawn boat ride along the river, which is a much calmer experience than walking the streets. There is still no escape from the push to purchase however. A boat draws alongside us and, in the middle of the river, we are practically boarded by someone trying to sell us a candle which we are then supposed to set alight and leave to drift, giving us good karma. We were calmer before he got there so we politely decline, unsure how adding further pollution to the septic waters is good for the soul.

On to Agra, the home of the most famous monument in India, the majestic Agra Fort. First though we decide on a dawn viewing of the lesser known Taj Mahal. The Taj is a work of art, sullied only by the gaggle of (mainly American) tour groups with name tags proudly displayed, looking blithely around asking inane questions to long-suffering guides. This does not take away from the beauty of the place though and we spend the next 2 hours watching the growing light changing the colour of the building as the sun rises. Our feet also change colour as you have to remove your shoes when approaching the Taj and with our souls brightened and soles blackened we left to get some breakfast.

The fort is a huge red fort. We fort it'd be different (apologies again). It's big, red and empty. It used to be fuller but the British, in their infinite wisdom demolished most of the historic structures inside back in the days of the Raj. The arctitecture is imposing and impressive and the monkeys think they are too. They certainly leave an impression, especially when we get the camera out to get a picture which we have attached...we'll leave you to make your own judgement.

The next stop on our cultural whirlwind tour was Jaipur, the pink city. The city was painted pink in the 19th century by the Maharaja Ramsing to welcome the Prince of Wales, many of the buildings are also constructed of the local pink stone, basically it's pink.

We wandered around the old city, visiting the palace (which was a bit uninspiring, lots of swords and textiles - yawn), the Janter Manter and the Hawa Mahal. The Janter Manter is a huge open air observatory housing a bizzarre collection of oversized astrological instruments. It looks like a half finished Flintstones-style theme park and is one several built around the country by the Mughal emperor Jai Singh, who the city is named after. After the Hawa Mahal, a tower built for the ladies of the court so that they could see the activity on the streets without actually having to go out (which seems a good idea the 30th time someone shouts at you to sell you a sari), we got back to the hotel as we had accepted an invitation from the owners for a tour of the city with his family. It was the day before Diwali, the festival of lights, and every year he takes the kids out to see the illuminations of the town. It's like Christmas in Blackpool but without the chavs and the blatent commercialism (and the cold) and it is touching to see lots of families out doing the same. A lovely end to the day and our time in Jaipur. We leave for Delhi tomorrow, up to our eyeballs in history.

Culture-vultures out.


permalink written by  BecnWill on November 7, 2007 from Jaipur, India
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
tagged TajMahal, Monkeys, AgraFort, Jaipur, JantarMantar, ManikarnikaGhat, DawnBoatRide, TourGroups and LeaveAnImpression

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Scammed in Siliguri

Kolkata, India


We arrived from Darjeeling in a good mood with a watertight plan of action for the next few days. Obviously there was no way it could go wrong. It was simple - drive to the West Bengal Tourist Association, book a few days in the wildlife reserve at Jaldhapara, head back to Sili and then off to Kolkata. Easy. Only problem being that once we arrive in Siliguri our driver didn't know where the tourist office is. Unfortunately there is no other way to book Jaldhapara other than through the WBT office - no way at all - you can try to phone them, but they won't talk to you, or anyone it would seem, other than the members of the West Bengal Tourist office...perhaps they don't like tourists.

Our ever helpful driver dissappeared down an alley and ushered us to a darkened shop front saying that it's closed today for a public holiday, pointing to small a darkened window to prove his point. Straight away we sprang into action; time for plan B: Sack the whole thing off.

We rocked up at the train station and, after fending off assorted urchins who sound remarkably like ET ('helloooooooo...'), we joined the queue for tickets for the night train back to Kolkata. After an hour we're pleased with our progress of inching 2 feet closer to the front, but oddly enough there seemed to be no change in the number of people ahead. Unsure how this had happened we turned to find a fairly unhappy Indian man's face about half an inch away from our own. This may have been OK if the rest of him had been as far...sadly this was not the case. We're not the first to think that the Brits have made queuing an art form, as well as a favourite national past-time, but the rules are very different here and acceptable allowances for personal space are considerably more personal. The next 2 hours consisted of inching toward the booth with a sweaty paunch resting in the small of Will's back - a sensation, we imagine, like being spooned by a professional darts player while standing up, in a queue, in 36c heat - nice.

When we finally reached the front of the line and handed over our form the wry smile of the teller informed us that there was something amiss. Was our form filled in correctly? Did they know that we had lied about our father's name? Was it the tutting Indian head which appeared to be attached to the side of Will's neck? No, it was the fact that the train we wanted happpened to be full today...and tomorrow? Full. "How about the next day?" "Full,' but he eventually relents, '...maybe the bus would be better for you." Hmmm, 16 hours on a bus? Let's think about that.....errr no. Flight it is then.

This did give us a chance to see if we could get to Jaldhapara though so we booked into a hotel and went to check the WBT Office the next day. We were happy to find them, obviously the taxi driver hadn't taken us to the actual office, and to find them open. We booked a room, on a cancellation no less ('Your luck is with you today, Sir') and skipped into town to make arrangements for our transport there, a private taxi (a treat compared to the alternative, a 4 hour bus ride, packed in like sardines) to Madarihat, 9km from the park. This is achieved with a minimum of fuss and some masterful haggling on our part; we're on our way to see some Rhinos!

3 hours later and we've apparently arrived, our driver and his mate leap out to help us with our bags, which is very kind as the car's been mobbed by a group of 30 or so excited looking locals. We grab the bags and the nearest of the group immediatly offers us a ride to the lodge - success again - we're on fire today! Oh. What's that? How much? How far?!? It appears our original driver has dumped us in the middle of nowhere, 40km from our agreed destination, at night. Where's Sir's luck gone now...?

Somewhat distressed we arranged the next, unplanned, leg of our journey and set off into the black night. When we arrive at the lodge the sense of relief at not having been murdered, robbed, robbed and murdered or robbed, murdered and dropped in the wrong place, almost takes away the anger of being royally scammed. The fact that it only cost us an extra £3.50 each also helps, as does the promise of the elephant ride we manage to arrange for the next day. The fact that they have no beer in the bar does not, but we will not be defeated! Tired yet triumphant we go to bed - after all we're up at 5am tomorrow.

It's well worth the early start. The park is beautiful - green, leafy and wild. The elephants are surprisingly comfortable, if not a little wobbley as we're perched on one side. With each step we feel as if the saddle is about to come loose and leave us in the slightly less dignified position of hanging upside down beneath our ride, our heads ploughing a furrow into the undergrowth. We see three one horned rhinos, who seem surprisingly shy. This is somewhat of a blessing though, as an angry rhino might be too much to take this early in the morning - even from the relative safety of the top of an elephant. They're lovely, if a little lumpy looking. We're followed throughout by a baby elephant who takes great interest in us after we're returned to the ground. We get to pet him. He pets us back. Ace. Yesterday's nightmare journey was worth it after all, but we're definitely getting the bus back!

As expected the bus is somewhat crammed, there's a guy on top who's looking after the bags stored on the roof (lucky for him they also have a hold under the bus so he doesn't have to lift our gigantic bags up) and another guy hanging off the side, shouting for passengers as we pass through each village, but at least we know we'll get to where we want to this time. We're standing at first, which would be ok if the roads weren't so pot-holed, but luckily a couple of seats appear pretty quickly at the back and we're in. Oh noooooo...the kid who was there before us has been siiiiiiick - grim. A few people standing by laugh at the silly English with their feet in the sick, but we're wedged in now and it looks like we're staying. Fortunately, a load of people soon get off so we're able to move seats, this affords us perfect views of the passing scenary, and later on a ringside seat of the roof guy as he crashes to the ground after lifting an unexpectedly heavy case. A group of onlookers rush to his assistance, which comes in the form of what looks like fairly violent birthday bumps. He manages to shake them off and we wonder whether he's off roof duty for good. But no, he's back up and shifting cases in a matter of minutes - we're impressed, since some of us have required a lay down in the First Aid Room after a mere hangover! We're glad to get back as after 4 hours we resemble origami people as there's so little legroom (even worse than a Ryan Air flight!) and the cycle rickshaw back to our hotel (lazy but true) is exhilirating, if not slightly dangerous given that we're 2 people with bags just slightly smaller than ourselves.

Back in the hotel and it seems our wildlife tour is not yet complete as ghekkos speed around the room - we love them. Sadly they are nowhere to be seen when the giant killer cockroach flies out of Will's bag - GAAAAAAAAAAAAH! Some screaming and jumping on the furniture later we're still at a loss as to how to persuade it to leave, and how Will is ever going to get anything out of his infested bag. Well...clothes are pretty cheap here - we'll just buy everything afresh? A couple more hours later and we've captured it with glass and the plane ticket comfirmation - out the window it goes...and the plane ticket too - curses. We sit back to relax after a job well done when a second, even bigger, shinier and meaner looking cockroach appears and hides behing the sofa, which is kind if where we wanted to be hiding. We attempt to poison the beast using air freshener, this seems ineffective on the cockroach but seems to be working on us humans - we retreat to come up with another plan in the safety of a nearby bar, smelling overwhemlingly of lavender and fear.

After a beer and some noodles a fiendish plan comes to us, so clever, cunning and intricate that even Machiavelli would have been proud. So perfect that Hannibal (from the A Team, not the Elephant guy) would have been declared to be on the jazz by B A Barrachus, and he was nobody's fool. We sit, poised in the room and the third or fourth time it appears (the first couple of times we were too slow/scared to act) it gets a sandal in the face and team knight once again rules over their domain...except for the pigeons nesting in the roof above us, but let's not go there. We love it when a plan comes together.

permalink written by  BecnWill on October 29, 2007 from Kolkata, India
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
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Tea for Two

Jalpaiguri, India


After rejoicing over our success on purchasing our first train ticket, we were brought back down to Earth with a crash when we realised we had booked it for the wrong day - curses. We blame the lengthy and arduous journey we had undertaken...surprisingly enough this epiphany had come to us after only 2 hours sleep (the total taken over the course of our first 3 days here - thank you Larium). Perhaps we function better when most are at their worst...or perhaps this is the best we get...? We'll leave it to you to decide. Luckily we were able to rectify this mistake and swapped the days, but this time we were heading for cattle class.

Despite our initial confusion of the train set up (we suspect that confusion may be a common aspect of this trip), the journey to New Jalpaiguri (the closest mainline to Darjeeling) is uneventful. This is until we begin to walk across the bridge towards the awaiting hoard of taxis baying for our tourist blood...we mean cash...and are stopped by a stranger who's recognised us from one of the flight over. It turns out he also spotted us in one of the bars at the hotel and offers us a lift up to the town. We are even more pleasantly surprised when we find out that the jeep belongs to the police commissioner of Darjeeling as we kind of expected our first ride in an Indian police car to be less comfortable, or optional.

After an easy journey up (made easier as all of the other cars immediately clear a path for us) we arrive in Darjeeling; set in beautiful, tree covered hillsides which brings to mind an alpine toy town. Our new friend offers to help us book some accomodation and insists that we meet with his good friend Commissioner Gordon (names may have been altered to protect the innocent). After a brief chat over authentic Darjeeling tea, served by men in military-style uniforms in tiny china cups (the tea, not the men in uniform) CG kindly arranges for us to stay at the very exclusive Planters Club (a members only club, the oldest in India if the Lonely Planet is to be believed...though you'll hear more on this later) - and we thought backpacking meant slumming it?

After a further police escort to the hotel, which is much appreciated since our bags are back cripplingly heavy despite us only bringing the most essential items (5 pairs of shoes are the bare minimum for some), we scrub up and head into town...surprisingly enough, the first stop happens to be a pub...actually, so is the next. However, before familial concern over alcohol consumption arises, this is after eating a hearty dinner in pub 1, and upon the suggestion of our new friend - we were all reeady to go for an early night...honest. We eventually retire after just a few quiet warming beers inside us (it's baltic up north) with yet another police escort - we hope that our smiling faces convey to any lookers-on that this is by choice rather than demand.

Just to prove that we're not hungover, we're up at 4am the next day to visit Tiger Hill - a popular sunrise viewing station from which you can see Everest, as well as 5 other Himilayan peaks. No police escort this time as our friend has decided to stay in bed, which is odd as he doesn't drink. On arrival we see why, as our view consists entirely of
the backs of the thronging crowd's heads...that and a great deal of cloud. However, we enjoy a nice hot thimble of chai and an impromptu singalong whilst we wait for our driver to return (hits include Ice Ice Baby, Wild Wild West, and our own version of We Built This City - soundtrack to be available shortly). On returning to the main town we realise that for some reason nothing is open - lazy types these Darjeelans - it's almost 630am - where are they?! We entertain ourselves by watching the pack of dogs which have congregated in the main square...for an hour. We are easily amused, especially when hungry and overtired.

At 7:30 we excitedly set off to find the 'best breakfast in Darjeeling' as recommended by our trusty backpackers bible, the Lonely Planet. At 11:04 we stumble into a completely different and completely empty cafe having been awake for 7 hours, hungry for 3 hours and furious for 2 hours. Captain Scott died trekking through the Arctic wilderness trying to find sustenance; I bet he had a Lonely Planet guidebook too.

We plan another early night after checking out the rest of the sights in Darjeeling but luckily we are having more success finding friends than finding food and bump into a lovely Irish couple who helped us find our feet (and seat) on the train up and after a few drinks and a few more songs we retire to the comfort of the Planters' open fire and hot water bottles.

Time to get the hell out of Darje...

permalink written by  BecnWill on October 26, 2007 from Jalpaiguri, India
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
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And so it begins...

Kolkata, India


We arrive into Dum Dum airport (what a name?!) in scorching dry heat - no big surprise I suppose - this is India after all...After a brief but somewhat nervewracking wait in the baggage collection area (having heard many a horror story about Heathrow's somewhat original approach to baggage services) the bags turn up and we proceed through immigration. Leaving the airport we're surrounded by taxi touts and seemingly very helpful locals, one of whom insists on pushing our trolley the 10 metres to our carriage (a micro A team style van)...he kindly insists on further lightening our load by taking our heavy english coins thus saving us changing them at a later date. Driving into town we get our first taste of 'real Kolkata' through the windows of the cab (they don't close), which is mainly dust and diesel fumes. It's a cacophony of beeping horns, which seem to be used instead of any road rules, indicators or brakes. We've only been travelling 5 minutes and we see our first crash - reassuringly enough, the person is alive...As we drive through the outskirts of the town the first thing that comes to mind is the duality of this place - there are huge billboards lining the roads advertising the latest mobile phone and computer technology, behind which are ramshackle buildings, some in a state of near collapse, and shanty towns built from rubbish. Luckily for us our hotel is much nicer than the inaccurately named Peerless Inn (one of our original choices which we pass on the way - it looks like a bombsite). The lobby of the Park is a sea of polished marble and polished staff, having travelled for about 12 hours we could do with a polish ourselves, but they don't seem to mind...several hours later, and despite our assurances to our friends back home that this is purely a cultural visit, we find ourselves in the first of the hotel's bars. Not wanting to miss anything, by the end of the night (about 4am) we have seen them all - an excellent start.

The next day, through bleary eyes and with fuzzy heads, we attempt to buy train tickets for the next leg of our journey - we should have done this sober. Despite the seemingly complete lack of order in the city, every action requires at least one form, which must be completed in minute detail or 'it will not be entertained' - glurk...we try for Darjeeling...they say no, but give us tickets to another station instead...after some resaerch we find this is sort of on the way, so I guess we're doing alright...? This is almost a moot point though as we are nearly killed on the way back - it's raining, hard, but the taxi driver considers windscreen wipers an optional extra not included in the price we agreed. Neither it would seem is any extra care or attention towards other road users, particularly the much larger vehicle heading directly towards us at great speed...he swerves at the last minute (we presume - we'd both assumed the brace position) and we live to tell the tale...the driver still asks for a tip ('here's a tip - use your windscreen wipers'). Perhaps the confusion was caused by Kolkata's unusal approach towards road laws, which include the one way systems changing direction at 2pm each day - because it's not dangerous enough crossing the roads as it is...

Day 3 and we're ready to start our sight seeing tour of the city, which we planned in great detail the night before...unfortunately we wake up late afternoon - curses. Instead of our hard core tourist agenda we spend the day buying a plug converter - good work team! After this rip roaring success we set off to find the backpacker area to get some well earned refreshment...we can't find it. We do however find a Puja festival site - for the uninitiated, this is a religious festival held each year all over India, the largest venue being Kolkata - it looks surprisingly like a funfair, complete with waltzers and dodgems. We decide against them being somewhat doubtful of the Health & Safety regulations in place. Finally we receive the recognition we've always felt we deserved, in the form of a gaggle of youths crowding round us, asking our names and shaking our hands...the police follow shortly to disperse the adoring crowd with a vague intimation of violence towards them, checking whether they are bothering us - we tell them no, but don't tip them, we hope they let the little ones live...

We feel very conspicuous...passers by feel obliged to stare and occasionally comment - some smiling...some glaring - all with the same result of us feeling very alien - we're a long way from home.


permalink written by  BecnWill on October 17, 2007 from Kolkata, India
from the travel blog: The World By Knight
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