A Travellerspoint blog

Misadventures in India

India is an easy place to have some inadvertent adventures and some stories to tell, here is just one of the fun situations I found myself in while traveling alone in the Sub Continent.

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On June 11th I was in Agra to see the Taj Mahal- the most famous landmark in all of India. As usual I spent some time (and too much money) in an internet café nearby. I was at the cafe till about 1:30 in the morning when they finally kicked me out. It was only a short two blocks to the hostel so I figured it would be OK to walk in the very deserted streets. However, after being chased by street dogs in Mumbai in 2004 I have had a bit of a fear of them. So I picked up a brick for protection and walked back to the hostel.

At that hour the outer gate was locked of course and no matter how much I knocked and yelled, I could not rouse the owners, but did a good job of alerting all the dogs in the area to my presence and a chorus of barking accompanied my pleas.

After a few minutes I decided to just climb the gate and go to my room. No sooner did I step on top of the gate than the massive German Shepard guarding the hostel came running from inside, letting me know that getting down was not an option. I realized at that moment just how bad it must have looked, a stranger in the middle of the night trying to climb a locked gate with a brick in his hand. So I tried yelling louder from the top of the gate and banged on the metal with my brick, still to no avail.

Frustrated, I jumped back into the street to try and get some help. I has seen a few people sitting down on a bench down the block and hoped that they would be friendly. Turns out there were about 5 Tourist Police officers there in the shadows and one on the roof of a building across the street. Again I thought about just how bad the seen looked and wondered why the hell that had not arrested me for an attempted break-in. Not sure what they would have done in a real break in attempt, but I tried not to worry about that.

I approached the officers and with my best smile I said “Hello, could you help me please?” The officer looked at me strangely and gestured suspiciously to the brick in my hand. I hastily dropped the brick and tried to explain "Dogs, dogs, I don't like the bad dogs.” I have no idea if the message came across but he seemed to accept my explanation.

They spoke very little English and, of course and I have no Hindi to speak of so I showed them my room key and first tried to convince them that I was legit, and not a drunken or drugged tourist. One officer asked if I was "together", so I gathered he meant sober. I insisted "no beer" and tried to get him to smell my breath, which did not go over well. I must have seemed harmless enough, however as two officers accompanied me back to the gate and tried making some noise, only managing to bring back the German Shepard. One officer suggested that I climb the fence again and I just pointed to the dog inside. He then broke off a very small and inadequate branch from a nearby tree for me to protect myself which I just stared at.

I had the number of the hostel in my Lonely Planet guide and pulled it out imploring one of the officers to try and call. He agreed and after the third try he started speaking in Hindi into his mobile and a few minutes later the owner came out ,unlocked the gate and with a look of death in my direction ushered me to my room. I sheepishly went to my room and tried to get some sleep which did not really happen as the air conditioning unit in my room only succeeded in making it miserably hot AND humid as opposed to just miserably hot.

It was dawn before I passed out and managed somehow to get 2 hours of rest before the room became too hot again and I was forced back out. I did spend the next few bleary-eyed hours at the Taj Mahal- which does live up to its reputation as the most beautiful building in the world, so I can’t complain too much.

Posted by Andrew995 09:08 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Dazed in Dubai

sunny 46 °C

If I thought I knew what Hot was from Thailand I had no idea what the true definition of the word is till I came here to the Arabian Desert in the beginning of summer. Its only 41 degrees C (105 F) right now, but yesterday it was 46C (114 F) while I was walking around and touring the city, and that’s too damn hot. The locals here have told me that this is nothing and that July and August are when it really gets hot and I will be in Qatar from the 21st to the 24th of July, can’t wait for that!

I also have finally caught my first cold of the trip plus contracted a poison-ivy like rash on my foot, so yesterday I spent the day in a daze from the benadryl for my foot, sinutab for the cold and the oppressive heat. Wandering around the bazaars and alley ways of old town Dubai in a decongestant fog and surrounded by women in full head dress and men in the white Arabian robes was quite a surreal experience.

So what is Dubai like you might ask? Well for one it is very expensive compared to SE Asia, and like three cities all in one. The most interesting is the old restored historic neighborhoods which are the stereotypical Arabian markets full of spices, fish, fruits and nuts, then of course the Gold Souk which is like Jewelers Row in Philadelphia multiplied by a million.

The second city is a fairly typical modern city with commercial districts, many high rise buildings built in the 70's bland style and squares and city parks. Then there is the new and (mostly under construction) futuristic Dubai which is being fueled by the unlimited wealth of the Royal family.

The most impressive of these projects that are complete include the massive twin towers of the World Trade center, much more modern looking than the towers were in NY and the worlds tallest and only 6 star hotel the Burj- al- Arab which is built in the shape of a sail and where you have to pay $20 just to walk in the lobby, which was out of my budget. Then there is the Mall of the Emirates which is the largest mall in the world (of course) and includes an indoor SKI RESORT! Yes, I saw it with my own eyes, in the middle of the friggin desert here you can go skiing on a few small hills inside a mall on real snow; it boggles the mind.

Even more mind boggling are the about 20 massive construction projects all in the works simultaneously. They include the Burj Dubai (soon to be the worlds tallest building by some 500 feet) and not one, but three man made island archipelagos in the shape of palm trees which are being built solely for luxury home and resort development. There is also an archipelago being constructed as a map of the world also for the same purpose 4Km off the coast. Then there is the underwater hotel and the "Dubai Marina" complex which includes 40 high rises along the beach all being built at once and a massive marina complex being created that will be bigger than the downtown of the old dubai. This is just a tiny fraction of the projects going on right now, it is like nothing this world has ever seen, and in the words of the tourist brochure, "It is amazing to see what unlimited money and imagination combined can create"

The excesses of the wealthy in the US pale in comparison to what is going on here, it is truly amazing.

Posted by Andrew995 09:17 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A Bleeding Heart Liberal in Cambodia

Warning: this is not a pleasant read, but I felt that I needed to share these thoughts.

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Cambodia is such a land of contradictions that it is mind boggling. It is a land full of some of the friendliest people I have met and some of the most sophisticated examples of art and architecture the world has ever seen. In Cambodia are the ornate royal temples and palaces of Phnom Penh and the stunning temples of Angkor including the worlds largest religious building, Angkor Wat itself and the Tao Phrom, right out of Indiana Jones and where portions of the 2000 film Tombraider were filmed.

These sights and many that I did not see make Cambodia an amazing place to visit and one of my favorite places in the world.

Then there is the tragic legacy of Cambodia, three decades of strife and war beginning with the American bombardment of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and lasting through the utterly brutal Khmer Rouge regime which ruled the country from 1974 to 1979 and oversaw the extermination of over 2 million people (10%) of the population. The government of Vietnam then drove out the KR and occupied the nation during the early 1980's and the KR conducted a guerilla war until its final defeat in 1998. The KR left the rural countryside rife with landmines and there are some 3 million plus mines still in the ground today.

Thankfully joint international/Cambodian mine clearing teams have made many areas safe to return to, but the progress is excruciatingly slow and the task monumental and far, far from over.

All of this has had a devastating impact on Cambodia's economy and population which I was able to experience first hand in the hundreds of poor children hawking everything and anything at Angkor, the many, many beggars in the streets of Siem Reap and the countless landmine victims on the streets. It is the mine victims that are the most heartbreaking. Thousands of innocent people have been maimed, mostly the rural poor, and with a health care system unable to deal with them many of these victims are unable to obtain employment and are left to beg in the streets. I witnessed many, many amputees at the border, crossing into Cambodia, on the streets of the cities and just about everywhere.

On the border I witnessed many farmers riding modified bicycle powered carts pushing the pedals at chest height with their arms as they were all missing one or both of their legs. I also saw a prison truck, deporting what I assume were illegal Cambodians from Thailand back into Cambodia. It was right out of a movie with people crammed inside gripping the bars and staring forlornly out of the truck.

All of this was painful enough to see, but there were two sights on top of this which have burned their way into my mind forever. The first was visiting the S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. S-21 is a former High School that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as an internment camp and torture center. Thousands of men, women and even young children were taken here and never seen again. The classrooms were used as cells and people inside were subjected to inhuman and unspeakable acts of violence. Inside the rooms are pictures of the victims broken, starving and bleeding and in one room there are even bloodstains on the 20 foot high ceiling. The presence of pain and suffering still permeates the place and I could not enter the rooms for more than a second.

As a stark contrast to this dark past, there were many people playing volleyball or football just behind the buildings, laughing and joking while children played in the dirt. It was all rather surreal and to me seems like another testament to the strength of the Cambodian people to survive despite such pain in their lives.

The museum is all there to be a reminder of what happened while most of the world remained silent or tacitly supported the Khmer Rouge regime as a barrier against the Communist government of Vietnam. It is also there to help prevent such things from happening again in the future. As we witness war and chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq and genocide in Darfur I wonder how much we have learned.

The final image which I will never forget from Cambodia was a severely deformed child on the street of Phnom Penh. I only saw the child for a second as I was walking down the waterfront promenade, but it was more than enough. As I was walking my attention was drawn by a small group of people standing around a woman with a small bundled figure in front of her. I looked and to my horror saw that the bundle was a child with its head the size of the rest of its body, like the pictures of alien children in the supermarket tabloids. I was not even aware that a human being could remain alive with such severe deformities and I had no idea what could have caused it. Another friend of mine saw a man whose face had a growth extending halfway to his waist which he was just holding as he walked down the street and people stared.

It was not until two days later when I visited the War Museum in Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn City), Vietnam that I found out the cause. Agent Orange and numerous other defoliants that the US military used during the Vietnam War still severely contaminate much of the countryside in northern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia and Laos. Thousands of children such as the one that I saw are being born every year in Vietnam alone. The American chemical legacy of the war will remain in Southeast Asia for years to come. While it is well known that many US veterans have suffered from Agent Orange exposure I had no idea of the severity and extent of the contamination until seeing it first hand.

These are the realities of life for many people in Southeast Asia, and while I am not writing this to condemn the US government, I am writing it to condemn the acts of horror and violence that inevitably accompany any war, be it the Vietnam War or the War on Terror. In the US we are isolated from such realities and I think this is something that must change as we move into the 21st century.

Witnessing this, more than anything else drove home to me the true costs of war. All sides commit atrocities in war, there is simply no avoiding it.

Posted by Andrew995 06:25 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Songkran Pt. II (in Sukothai)

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A few days after my Bangkok Songkran experience I had made it to the ancient city of Sukhothai to check out the ruins of the 12th and 13th century capital of the Thai kingdom.

The ruins were all in park areas with beautiful landscaped gardens, ancient trees, ponds and lots of flowers. I rented a bike and rode around the ruins for two days with my new German friends, Christian and Martin.
While biking and sweating it out in the afternoon sun a Thai family eating in their yard by the roadside invited us to join them. We did and shared some food and beer and had a stilted conversation in English with our few words of Thai thrown in. After 20 minutes it was apparent that the family was preparing for some sort of ritual and they invited the three of us to participate. It was amazing, about 4 or 5 ancient and beautifully wrinkled women sat down on chairs in front of their house next to a little shrine with a Buddha statue.

The other 20 or so family members (and the three of us) lined up to pour water on the Buddha image and then on the women in a much ritualized fashion, and some of the younger women even bathed the women's backs. It was beautiful and I was so honored to have been invited. We sat with them and were offered lots of whisky, beer and some food as well, then said farewell.

Not half an hour later the three of us tourists were beckoned over by another group of Thais sitting in a beautiful spot by a pond and some of the ruins. We went over and found out that they were a group of deaf Thai people who were all communicating by sign language. With absolutely no reference point or any language in common, but a Thai phrasebook, pen and paper, more whiskey and lots of laughter and smiles we somehow had a conversation. It was rough going, but a very rewarding experience.

Posted by Andrew995 09:47 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Songkran (Thai New Year)

I was lucky enough to have arrived in Bangkok just in time to celebrate the Thai New Year or “Songkran” festival which lasted from the 12 through the 16th of April.

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I was able to experience the hedonistic party side of Songkran in Bangkok as well as the more sacred and spiritual side a few days later as I was touring the ancient ruins of Sukothai, about 8 hours by train to the north of Bangkok.

The festivities in Bangkok kicked off on the night of April 11th with a very formal and sanitized government sponsored show in the public park. It featured a sound and light show, traditional Thai dance and songs, fables and a tribute to the much beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It was good clean family fun.

This in no way prepared me for the scene around my hostel the next morning the massive backpacker center of Khao San Rd. It was like a cross between Marti Gras (Khao San being the equivalent of Bourbon St.) and MTV Beach Party attended by tourists and Thai’s alike from age 10 to 80. There were bands in the streets, foam machines, DJ’s, lots and lots of cheap beer and dancing girls up on speakers. So of course I bought myself a cheap water gun and dived into the fray. Unfortunately I was not able to get any pictures as my camera would have been destroyed the moment I took it out of my bad.

So you will have to mentally picture thousands of Thai people and tourists roaming the streets all day having massive water gun battles or just turning hoses on one another. The streets around Khao San were closed off to cars and were completely jam-packed with people from morning till late into the night. Even the shops and restaurants alone the streets were scenes of water gun battles with people darting in among the tables to shoot their victims and running off. Other than the water guns the second great theme of Songkran is smearing talc paste on one another’s faces and bodies. There were countless roving bands of teenagers smearing talcum powder mixed with water on everyone's face who passed by with a smile and a "Happy New Year" in broken English. My favorite revelers were the skinny shirtless teenage guys plastered with talc from head to toe running around in frenzy and pasting anyone who came in their reach.

The rest of the city outside of Khao San was the scene of drive-by water battles between pick up trucks and groups on the street corners. The pickups, laden with 10-20 “armed” people in the back and massive garbage bins full of water would pull up to a group on the corner and everyone would thoroughly soak each other for a few minutes before the truck would drive off to the next corner. It is impossible to stay dry during the 5-6 days of Songkran, which is actually a relief in the 100 degree F (40+ C) heat of Thailand in April.

Posted by Andrew995 09:44 Archived in Thailand Tagged events Comments (0)

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