We have left Asia after six and a half months of living and travel. The change to living in Croatia is quite a shock for both our minds and bodies. We’ve been adapting rather quickly to living in a European country, as both of us have traveled in Central and Western Europe before, but I have a feeling we’ll be digesting the differences from Asia for a long time. We are turning on the heat in the mornings and at night and apply more lotion to our suddenly dry and chapped skin. We pick up the bread basket at the restaurants we go to, marveling at the fact that we haven’t had good real cooked bread in months. Up and down the streets of central Zagreb, there are grocery stores galore, with everything from cucumbers to Milka to wine. And when we cross the street, we must look left again first after spending more than two months in countries where we had learned to do the opposite (Thailand, Malaysia, India). And nobody is honking! What a relief!
Essentially, Zagreb has been really wonderful so far. The more that Steve and I see, the more we like this city, which has a charming and wonderful old town that is every bit as beautiful and historic but better preserved and less touristy than Prague. There are people and dogs about in the parks, the pedestrian streets that criss-cross its historic center, sitting at roadside cafés, enjoying breakfast and beers and coffee. There are deciduous trees here, which look exotic to us after months of coconut palms, and the pale, early spring is persuading them throwing out small green buds, coaxing life into austere but elegant streets framed with concrete and stone buildings. On our first night here, it was a brisk 8 degrees Centigrade last night or 47 Fahrenheit. (I know, I know, I haven’t been in Chicago this whole winter! But you’d find it cold too if you’d been in Kochi!)
Our flight to Zagreb, Croatia is in the early morning on Wednesday. We are about to wrap up more or less a whole month in India, and I am feeling ambivalent about it. There were plenty of good things about this country, and I’m grateful for the experience of it all. At the same time, I want to get off my chest two very troubling experiences that I keep thinking about.
One of the things that frustrated me the most here was something that I had already mentioned about Thailand. There, Steve and I both felt relegated to the realm of the tourist, instructed firmly to follow the route that was laid out as though at Disneyland. Here, it is more the role of the tourist that I cannot escape. Walking down the street in both Delhi and Amritsar, I was constantly targeted and invited to walk into a shop, take a taxi, or buy something. It got to the point where I was constantly on the verge of yelling “DO I LOOK I LIKE I NEED A TAXI?!” and Steve started cultivating a stupid or sad look so no one would approach him. There were so few places we could go where people would just let us be. The expectation of personal space or privacy itself was a joke, unless we were locked inside our hotel room. People constantly offered us things or services to buy, not because we actually needed it or could use it, but because we were walking ATMs. I have never felt so dehumanized in my life. A little of it can be brushed off, but I fully admit that I take things too personally, and by the time we left northern India, I was entirely drained.
This is the second post to wrap up our beautiful backwaters trip in Kerala, with a few more details about our trip and what we learned from the entire experience.
The Morning After
The next morning, we got up fresh and early. I had set an alarm for 6:30 am, as I didn’t want to miss an iota of the rising sun. Kerala is beautiful too in the morning, a morning haze covering the fields and hanging over the canals before the sun burnt it off. We enjoyed the quiet, watching fishermen who were wrapping up their night labors, paddle home with fish in their baskets. By a morning cup of tea, I made a few more watercolors, including one that I’m very proud of, featuring the sunrise. I had so much fun doing this landscape art and looking at them closely. They’re far from perfect, but I have a sense of accomplishment in that when I look at them again, I feel as though I am out there on the water again.
Written on a houseboat Alleppey, Backwaters of Kerala Evening, Friday, March 21
Close your eyes. This is the sound of summer in your ears. Different insects chirping and singing their song. Vague voices raised far off, traveling and echoing across the water. Wild dogs yip and howl. The rhythmic thunk of a paddle meeting the water. The faint and indecipherable rustle of the breeze over your ears. The night is quiet on the backwaters of Kerala.
We moored a scant hour before sunset and watched the sun, a glowering fireball, set on the horizon. In this part of the backwaters, vast squares and trapezoids of rice paddy fields lie divided by narrow walls and spacious freshwater canals. The fields are slightly lower than the canals and can be flooded by opening gates. Along the confluence of two narrow canal walls are a few rectangular houses clustered together. When we moored, a villager came by unspooling an armful of electrical cords to hook up our houseboat. Accompanied by two of the enthusiastic young dogs (one who took up his post outside our houseboat, thumping the window with his good natured tail), we took a brief walk along the canal walls, making the acquaintance of a rooster hidden in a tree and two cows, or more specifically, water buffalo (with curved horns) who stared unblinkingly at us, as though daring us to come closer. One of the villagers hailed us, and upon finding out where we were from, excitedly told us his daughter was in Atlanta, GA and that a cousin of his operated a boat in Chicago on Lake Michigan. A very small world, indeed.
Welcome back, folks, to another edition of Terrible Apartment Photos. For those who are short on memory, our first installment back in October featured terrible apartment photos in Taiwan. Last time we saw them, our heroes Steve and Connie had left East Asia, and have been making their way through Southeast Asia and the subcontinent with varying degrees of success. Tired of trekking from place to place, they started seriously thinking about plunking down money to make a more long-term stay happen, independent of Workaway and WWOOFing situations. Where can they find a nice little slice of the world to call their own for a few months? The answer is France.
[cue montage of mounds of baguettes, panning over le Tour Eiffel, flowers and produce markets in cobblestone streets, and idyllic afternoons at roadside cafés, awash in accordion music]
We’ve been combing over AirBnB for hours, contemplating small condos in large cities like Lyon and Marseille as well as more spacious houses or cottages in the occasional obscure countryside village. One was so tiny it had no train station, which really left us scratching our head as to how we were going to get there. Many of the pictures were beautiful, and seemed to correlate directly with how expensive the apartment was, so take that for what you will. As beautiful and stereotyped as this country is, it is not immune from overzealous or simply dim-witted photographers who could not show their apartment in a positive light if their life depended on it. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of turning on the lights, or backing up a few inches so I can figure out whether this is a bathroom or bedroom, waiting until daylight for the best views, or using your common sense. Whatever it is, these people didn’t have it. You know you missed the snark. Here’s another helping.
The High Maintenance Owner Photo
I generally take it for granted that bathrooms contain something like a sink, so maybe you could tell me whether this bathroom has a shower or a bathtub? The only thing I can really glean from this picture is that its owner cares more about their hair than I do.
The No-Electricity Photo
Maybe the French are used to cooking in the semi-darkness, but I think that half-lit ambiance for your kitchen is so 1600s.
Since we arrived in Kochi by the train last week, I have found it very easy to lose track of the days. We are here for nearly two weeks in Kerala, which is an exquisitely relaxing place, I am happy to report. Last Thursday, we stumbled off the train and took a tuk-tuk ride to our homestay (an Indian B&B) in Fort Kochi, on the tip of the island where it meets the Indian Ocean. Our room has a small balcony on one side, and on the other, a small sunny verandah that holds a few tables and shared as a communal breakfast space.
From where we like to sit, I can see the flower pots on the edge of the verandah, a few rooftops next door, lines of laundry, the green tops of coconut trees and a hazy blue sky. Our second day here, I sat out in the heat to do a brief watercolor of it, which I’m going to pass on making public for now. Truthfully, my photography skills still far exceed whatever I can do on paper, but it’s relaxing to work on mixing the right shade of green and drawing miniature palm leaves. Kerala is a jungle-like environment. A few nights ago, we shared drinks and a long conversation about India on the balcony. As we talked, we saw and heard bats flapping from palm to palm. There is a strange birdcall sometimes, like a whooperwill (or maybe just what I think a whooperwill sounds like). Steve scoffed and said it was fake at first – that’s how weird it sounded to us. And there are crows all over the place too.
Written largely on the Kerala Express (12626)
Departed from New Delhi Railway Station, New Delhi, Rajasthan
Headed to Ernakulum Junction (South), Kochi, Kerala
11:30 am, Tuesday, March 11
We are on our way! Our train just pulled out of New Delhi a few minutes ago, and we are picking up speed. My first impressions of the 2-tier AC class so far — it is mostly neat and clean, but not as fancy as Amtrak. The hard sleeper class in China is very similar. Across from us is a nice-seeming but quiet gentleman. He speaks a little English, but either we have trouble with his questions or he has trouble processing our reply. There seem to be no other foreign tourists on our car, but I have glimpsed a few monks in their orange garb. There are a few curious kids also shyly peering at us too.
Steve and I are both getting over a bad cold, and he has had some disagreements with Indian food, so he is less enthusiastic about this trip than I am. The conductor just came by to check our IDs, and our neighbor had to peel his sweater vest halfway up his chest and partially unbutton his shirt to extract his wallet which was on a chain. It reminds me of this underwear that my mother once showed me from China, which had a small zip pocket for cash in the front. Basically, all Asians are paranoid about theft and pickpockets, but probably for good reason. Men have come by hawking lunch, but I feel adequately prepared, with two liters of water, two footlong Subway sandwiches (oh the fresh veggies), chips, and two rolls of TP. Let’s hope this is enough.
We braved the north of India for nearly a week to visit the holy city of Amritsar and to see its two great sights: the Golden Temple, center of the Sikh religion, and the Indian-Pakistani border at Wagah, which holds a much-vaunted closing ceremony. One of those sights we got to enjoy very much, as we visited the Golden Temple the second night we arrived.
We stayed in a hotel barely minutes away from the Golden Temple. As soon as we were headed inside, I felt the atmosphere change. Though people surrounded us, their glances were more frank and curious than probing and assessing, and no one approached us to ask if we wanted to buy something or if we needed a taxi. Wonders of all wonders! Here, few were curious visitors like us — many more were believers and true Sikhs. Sikhism dictates that inside the temple, all must go barefeet and with their heads covered. (Hence the turban you’ve probably seen Sikh men wear.) At the entrance, we approached the shoe storage center to hand them our shoes and receive a silvery token in return, carved with elaborate numbers. Steve also stopped at a bin filled with squares of orange cloth and bandannas, and fished out one to wrap around his head. He looked a little like a pirate!
India has officially given us a lot to cope with. Steve came down with some sort of head cold in addition to food poisoning, and now I’ve caught his cold too. We’re both curled up in the hotel, hacking and coughing and drinking as much water as we can.
Last night, we made a trip out for Domino’s Pizza (which oddly has tables and chairs here, instead of simply being a take-out joint) and tonight, sandwiches at Subway. Indian food is tasty, but all that dal makhani and chana masala is all cooked to high heaven, no minerals and vitamins left to speak of! It was such a relief to have raw vegetables. I also bought some oranges and bananas, and we’re going to try to recuperate as best as we can. Meanwhile, I can’t help but think that it’s going to be much better when we leave northern India, and possibly the entire country.
We’ve only been able to make a fleeting nighttime visit to the Golden Temple (which was quite nice) and not yet to the Pakistani border closing ceremony at Wagah, but maybe tomorrow or the day after when we feel better. Here, have a video about driving in Agra. Bonus: pig in the road!
Also, YouTube, don’t make me laugh. Of course this video is shaky.
Yesterday, we made an absurd five-hour journey, a calculated retreat from the mass of humanity that was Delhi, in hopes of finding a slightly better environment. What we found rather was India’s penchant for bureaucracy, lies, and general inefficiency. I want to write about it because I feel like it was so typically India, but it must be noted that nothing catastrophic happened: we didn’t lose our luggage or passports, get ripped off for a large amount of money, or cry and curse at the officials. It was simply just travel in India: death by a thousand micro-aggressions.
After checking out of our hostel, we walked through the dusty halls and elevated walkways of the New Delhi Railway Station, and upon arriving at the Airport Express Link, requested two tokens for the airport. The man behind the counter asked us where we were going (Amritsar) and the name of our airline (SpiceJet, a low-budget domestic airline), and directed us to get off a stop earlier, at Delhi Aerocity, instead of the Airport station for our domestic flight. The international terminal we arrived in initially led directly into the Airport station, so when we emerged from the Delhi Aerocity stop, we were dismayed to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, bound by empty stretches of roads on each side. Most passengers from our ride were getting on a shuttle bus for 30 rupees each ($0.50 USD), and it seemed like our only option, but we were reluctant. In India, you’re never sure if you’re being led in the correct (and cheap or free) direction or if you’re being taken for a ride. However, there were positive signs, since the cost was relatively low and other Indians were on board, so we gave in, half-expecting that we might be taken to the wrong terminal and have to get on another shuttle. Here, nothing’s simple.