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Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Owning your own

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the subject of karma. We agreed that neither of us believed there was some omniscient being who kept tabs on everyone in the universe. So what is karma?

I don't claim to know. I've heard many versions, many interpretations, and I can't say that I know which is correct. Who truly does? And yet in some sense I still believe in karma.

The Buddhist view is that karma is action and that it brings a result dependent on the intention behind the action. If one rolls over in the night and inadvertently kills an insect that happened to be in the bed there is no bad intention so no bad karma results. At times I choose to kill a mosquito knowing exactly what I am doing. I make a decision that I would prefer this mosquito to be dead rather than buzzing around me with the potential to make me sick if it bites me. Often in such circumstances I say to myself, 'I accept any karma that comes to me from killing this mosquito.'

I believe that in countries where most people consider themselves to be Buddhist there is often a misinterpretation of karma. People go out of their way to make merit (good karma). They feed the monks or give money to the temple. I remember the time a friend had gone to the bank and got brand new notes to make a donation to the temple because she believed that more merit would accrue. I doubt that such actions result in any merit because according to Buddhist teachings karma is the result of intention. If the intention was to create merit then the intention was selfish and no merit would accrue.

Many people in such countries drive fast under all circumstances whether safe or not. There is no mindfulness of karma at this time. The intention is 'I want to get to my destination as quickly as possible and I don't care about anyone else'. Such selfishness cannot lead to merit. If such people drove with more care for others they might not feel so much need to create merit through donations.

I seem to remember a quote from the Buddha saying that one glimmer of mindfulness brings more merit than to feed the entire sangha and the Buddha himself.

In India at times I encountered people whose way of doing business I would consider to be dishonest. It was suggested to me that such practices were so entrenched in India that if you don't adopt them yourself you lose—if you can't beat 'em join 'em. I strongly disagree. No one is responsible for my karma except me. It is only by maintaining my integrity that I maintain any good karma I might have. If someone else is intent on dragging themselves into 'hell', let them do it. I can't stop that. But I can take responsibility for myself.

And what about the bad stuff that does happen to me? There is plenty of evidence of it in the pages of this blog. I've been robbed quite a few times. I have been in situations that I have found to be extremely challenging. Does this suggest that I have been a very bad person in the past?

I don't claim to know but what I believe is this. We do influence our karma by the attitude we carry in our minds. I know many people who have very little to complain about and yet they suffer from deep depression. In the Western world (and perhaps Asia too) how many people are there who can say they can live without the aid of drugs? Nor just the illegal ones, when I say drugs I'm talking about the many drugs that society offers us to help us cope with the unsatisfactoriness of our existence: from caffeine to heroin. The fifth precept of Buddhism requires one to refrain from the taking of intoxicants. Many of the intoxicants popular today were not available in the time of the Buddha. Would they have been acceptable to the Buddha if they were?

When shit happens to me I too sometimes get depressed. I immerse myself in this depression and observe. I don't take anything to get me out of it. And eventually I reach a point where I can say 'thank you'. I say 'thank you' to the situation that brought it about and I ask myself what I have learned. The reality is that I have not learned anything new, I've just been reminded of the Buddha's first noble truth: there is dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). I'm also reminded of the second noble truth: the cause of my dukkha is my attachment to my desires. Basically, I am attached to things being different from the way they are. I have an expectation that things should be otherwise.

I can't change the world. I can only change myself. I ask myself what can I change in my life that will improve my situation. The reality is that while I can change the situation my new situation will also contain dukkha to the extent that I am attached to an expectation of how things should be. I can choose how to see that dukkha. I can let it get me down or I can smile and move on. In this way, I believe I am creating my karma each and every day. What happens to me is not in itself my karmic inheritance. It's the way I handle it that creates my karma.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Thai politics and human rights

So you want to know what is happening in Thai politics? I like this version of the current situation.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008


Are they still playing my tune?

I wrote a review of Tune Hotel in Kuala Lumpur some time back. Have returned there recently as I stopped over in KL on my way to and from India. I think an update is appropriate.

They now have a safe in the rooms, big enough to hold a laptop and more. I had some difficulty reading the instructions which are printed on the door. The positioning of the safe on the floor means that one needs to get down on the floor to read it and if your eyesight is not great for reading, the small type size is not going to help. On the first of my recent visits I only stayed one night and gave up trying to figure it out. On the second visit I stayed two nights and ended up asking the front office staff for instructions. It's easy when you know how: just enter a pin number of your choice followed by the hash key and the door locks. Repeat the same pin and hash and the door opens again. Just don't forget your pin.

If you want air-con at Tune it's an optional extra. I'm not big on air-con. I prefer to live without it. As regular readers of this blog know, a little heat doesn't bother me. In my room in Bangkok I would turn on the air-con when I came in on a hot day and leave it on for about ten minutes. That was enough to bring the room to a temperature that suited me. On a really hot day I would turn it on again no more than once an hour for about five minutes.

At Tune you pay in advance for five or twelve hours of air-con. This is registered electronically on your keycard. On the first of my recent visits I probably used about half of my five hours. When I checked out I asked if the balance could be credited for my next visit. They said 'no'.

On the second visit I once again took five hours. I used my usual method of conserving electricity. In fact the weather wasn't hot. I arrived during the evening. I went out for breakfast and a walk the next morning. When I returned the air-con was not working. I figured I'd used less than an hour of my five. I went to the counter and a staff member, ever-polite, came to check it for me. He had an electronic card that he said could check to see if there should be any balance in my account. The card showed I had none.

Now there are two possibilities, either I made a mistake or the card did. If I made a mistake I am a long way out. I reckon I'd used less than one hour. You figure it—five minutes maybe five times, even if you double it, that's less than an hour. But five??? I suggested the technology was faulty but he politely told me it is never faulty and if I want more air-con I'd have to pay for it. Well, I'm afraid I don't believe in paying for something twice. I declined.

Watch this space. Next time I go to KL I'll be reviewing another budget hotel.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008


Credible India

My visit to India is over. India is indeed incredible as the campaign claims. There are so many aspects to India, in one month I was barely able to scrape the surface. Perhaps one day I'll return but for now I'd like to revisit my preliminary blog Anticipating India.

Voluptuous and sexy women? Perhaps they exist but the India I saw was quite conservative. Indian women generally dress quite modestly. Saris and variations of them are designed to cover not reveal. However women wear them with style. I enjoyed the bright colours of Indian traditional dress. And a beautiful woman is still a beautiful woman without revealing all.

Enlightened beings? I have never in my life met someone who I could say 100% is an enlightened being, not in Australia, nor Thailand and not in my one month in India. Do they exist or are they the subject of legends? I don't really know. If they do, perhaps they are there in Australia in the same proportion as they are in India but having a much greater population, India may have a greater number just as they would have a greater number of charlatans. As for finding enlightened ones and separating them from the charlatans, let me know if you are successful.

Lofty principles? I'm sure they exist among some of the population. What stood out more for me was the poverty. Perhaps for a vast number of the Indian population their principles are based on the need to find enough food to survive the day. Perhaps it is up to those who have the luxury of lofty principles to address the issue of the great disparity between rich and poor in this country.

Shit in the street? I have been to another extremely poor country where I've seen more evidence of people using the streets as their toilet. However, in India, with the large number of holy cows that wander freely one still needs to be careful when walking in the street.

Bag stealing on trains? I didn't do a lot of train travel. I encountered no problems. Hey, I still have my passport : ). Perhaps we need to be careful wherever and however we travel.

Honesty in business dealings? I've already written about one hotel where they charged over the quoted price. I encountered one travel agent who charged an exorbitant booking fee and had all sorts of reasons to justify it. I didn't believe them. Quoted prices in India often do not reflect the final price. Considerable taxes may be added and people are not always upfront about this. Apart from this, I found the vast majority of Indians I had dealings with to be open, honest and helpful. I believe it is time that more emphasis was placed on these people. Instead of promoting Incredible India perhaps the government tourist authority should be promoting Credible India. How about a campaign to ask travellers to dob in someone who was honest and helpful? I'm sure there are many of them in this incredible country.

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Friday, December 26, 2008


Leaving India or not?

I got the feeling that somehow India didn't want me to leave. When I was about to enter the departure terminal of New Delhi Airport, I was stopped by a security guard who insisted on seeing my ticket. 'Ticket? Ticket? I don't have a ticket. Haven't you heard of etickets?' Lately I usually rock on into the terminal, show my passport and that's all they need to find the details on their computer and give me a boarding pass.

'Who are you flying with?'

'Malaysia Airlines.'

'Go to their office in the building over the road and ask them to print you a ticket. You can't enter the terminal without a ticket.'

Down the corridors of the building over the road I find a door with the Malaysia Airlines name on it. But the door is locked. I hang around for a while; wander around in case there's another but there isn't; wander back to the same door; still no one there. I go back to the main entrance. Fortunately I came plenty early.

He asks to see my passport and then asks again which airline I'm flying on. He goes inside and gets someone from Malaysia Airlines to come out. This guy takes my passport, disappears for a few minutes and returns to confirm that yes I do have a seat on the flight. I am allowed to enter. The guard, by the way, is quite friendly. He's just doing his job.

I join a queue which eventually brings me to a check-in counter. I show my passport and yep, there is absolutely no hassle getting a boarding pass. They have some forms on the counter. I notice others have been taking them. I ask if I need one. 'Yes, and take one of these for your hand luggage too.' She gives me a tie-on label.

I find a seat and fill in the form and label. I find a couple of money exchange counters but neither have Malaysian ringgits. Nothing else to do. No one to see me off. They won't allow anyone who isn't flying to enter. Nothing to do but enter through the immigration gates.

Go through the gates. My form is OK. I'm legally out of India. No hassles. And then I get to the security section.

There are several gates with a guard on each. There doesn't appear to be a reason to choose one or another. I choose one. He wants to see the label for each piece of my hand luggage. I have three pieces and one label. 'Well, what am I to do? I have only one label.'

'Go back outside and get labels for your other pieces of hand luggage.' He points back through immigration.

I go over to immigration and ask if it is possible to go outside and get some more labels. The answer is a definite 'No.'

I ask what I am to do as security won't let me go on. He answers in English but what he is saying is not within my comprehension. I say 'I'm sorry, I don't understand.' He repeats the same sentence a little louder and a little faster and points towards the security gates. He then turns away as if to say 'I don't want any more to do with you.' I still do not understand what he said. I decide to go to a different security guard. He lets me through.

I am scanned and frisked. My bags are scanned and a stamp is put on the label. I go inside and wait. I am quite early. The exit gate is not even acknowledged on the electronic notice board. I sit down and read.

Eventually my flight is called. I join the queue. While I'm waiting a woman says to me that I had better put my small black bag inside my larger white one or security won't allow me to bring it on board.

Eventually I reach the security guards at the exit door. They want to see the stamp on each piece of my hand luggage. I have one on the label that is attached to the largish bag that contains my computer and camera but I don't have one on my white cloth bag.

'You stand over there,' one guard tells me in a firm voice.

I feel like a naughty school kid. 'So, what are you going to do?' I ask. 'Keep me in India?'

The second guard comes over and takes a closer look at the white cloth bag. He finds that the stamp has been put on the bag itself. Perhaps they put one on the black bag too but of course it wouldn't show. Anyway, I'm allowed to board my plane.

Security in India is stricter than I have seen anywhere else I have travelled. I understand. Terrorism from various sources is a big issue in India. Every time I entered a shopping mall in India I was scanned and frisked. I accept that this is for my protection and safety. However, I wish the security guards could be taught how to do their job without having to unduly inconvenience innocent people. How simple it would have been if the security guard I encountered after passing through immigration had a supply of extra labels.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008


What do you want for Christmas?

I was raised in a Christian home and taught to believe that Christmas is a Christian celebration. I have since come to understand the real meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is training for children in the only commandment of the religion of Capitalism:

Thou shalt covet.

'What do you want Santa to bring you?' we ask of children too young to separate the fairy tale from reality. Even the most selfless child soon learns that they have to come up with something to ask Santa to bring. And those who've been through it before can demonstrate to younger siblings and friends that you don't have to be modest in your desires.

I confess that I too covet. Perhaps what I want for Christmas is too big, too much. Maybe Santa can't even fit it in his sleigh. Dear Santa, this year for Christmas can you bring to children of all ages (up to 99 or so) throughout the developed world the understanding that there are kids in many countries who not only have no toys but don't have enough to eat? Dear Santa can you somehow help us to put the needs of those people ahead of our own never-ending insatiable desire for more and more toys that won't make us happy anyway?

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Monday, December 22, 2008


Smoke with your meal

One of the things I really like about India is that they've banned smoking in public places. One of the things I dislike about smokers in India is that they refuse to accept that a restaurant is a public place.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008


Handling the hawkers

I wrote before, back when I was in Hanoi, about the way so many tourists ignored the hawkers as if they were afraid they would be forced to buy something. Generally I like to to talk to people in the countries I visit. In India I am finding the need for a different tactic.

When I am in a different place I often stop and stare. Others may not realise what I am doing. In my mind's eye I am framing a picture. I am looking at a scene to see if it makes a good composition. If it looks good then I'll take my camera out and shoot it.

This was happening one day in Rishikesh. I had just crossed the Laxman Julha bridge. Already I had said 'No thank you,' politely to several hawkers. I had turned around because there was a group of people posing for photos with a particularly friendly monkey. I was thinking it might make an interesting shot to show the photographer and the models and the monkey. While considering this I was approached by yet another hawker.

'Would you like to look at some postcards, sir?'

'No thank you.'

'I have some very nice...' I can't remember what it was but these guys have a whole heap of things on their trays. If you don't want postcards then they'll try you with something else.

But I'm still trying to concentrate on framing my picture. 'No thank you,' more firmly.

'I can show you some...'

At this point I lost it. 'Do you understand English? I don't want to buy anything. Fuck off!' I had also lost my concentration and walked off.

I admit I didn't handle the situation well. Later on the same day I was browsing in some shops for souvenirs for my grandchildren. I noticed a way that many of the sales assistants treated me that I found off-putting. If they reached a point where they believed I was not going to buy what they were trying to sell, they would ignore me. The wouldn't politely say, 'Well, have a nice day' or close the conversation in some other way. They would behave as if I didn't exist. Not sure what they were trying to achieve but they certainly ensured I would not return to their shop for anything else.

I decided that if this was the way people behaved in India then in this case perhaps I could learn something. Next time I came across the bridge I was again approached by several hawkers. I stared straight through them and kept walking as if they weren't there. It worked.

Maybe those tourists I observed in Vietnam had visited India earlier.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008


Crossing the holy river

The holy Ganga River passes through the holy city of Rishikesk. Seekers from around the world come to study under the yogis, gurus and sadhus who abound here. Indian people come to bathe in the holy river. It certainly looks cleaner here than further downstream. Crossing the Ganga is another matter. For me that brings challenges.

My mind was open (and still is) to the possibility that one or two of the sadhus had acquired the ability to walk across the water. If that is the case, I have yet to see it but what I do see are sadhus walking across the bridge like me and many others. Let me assure you, if I knew how to walk across the water, that would be my preferred choice but I can't so the bridge is my only option.

There are actually two bridges perhaps about a kilometre apart. They are of similar design—suspension bridges. What I hesitate to call the walkway on the one near me at Laxman Jhula is wide enough for four average-sized people to walk abreast.

Indian people like to pose for photos on the bridge, sometimes alongside the monkeys who hang out there looking for handouts. I don't know how successful they are at getting these photos as the other Indians, the ones not having their photos taken, usually do not wait but walk straight between photographer and models.

The occasional sacred cow (they are quite plentiful in Rishikesh) also wanders onto and across the bridge and invariably drops some holy shit before reaching the other side—just another challenge for us to avoid while crossing.

Pack donkeys are sometimes driven across the bridge. I haven't actually encountered any while I've been on the bridge but I know that the ones in the street give way to no one.

Why I hesitate to call the walkway a walkway is that it is also used by motorcycles. The riders (not all, but many) of these show as much sense and manners as do the donkeys except for the fact that they do beep their horn to warn you to get out of the way. Often they are riding too fast for the situation and often the bridge is so crowded with pedestrians, cows, donkeys and people taking photos that the only way to go to escape the oncoming beeping motorcycle is up.

Let me assure you—and them—that if I had the ability to levitate at will, as they seem to expect, I wouldn't be walking on the bridge. I'm sure it would be way easier to walk across the water.

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Friday, December 19, 2008


Getting to Rishikesh

The map on the back of the Hotel White House brochure has been quite helpful for finding my way around Dehradun. I've found most of the landmarks. However I didn't find the railway station. I'm thinking that perhaps the map is not to scale and I simply did not walk far enough.

But it seems I might not need the railway station after all. A website for one of the guesthouses in Rishikesh says there is a bus direct from Dehradun. If I get the train, I still need to get a bus or taxi from Hardiwar. The bus option sounds better. I ask the White House manager about it. He says there is a regular bus—a good one—and that if I walk to the Parade Ground I can pick up an auto that will take me to the bus station for five or ten rupees.

The following morning I'm checking out and when he sees my bags decides that walking to the Parade Ground is not such a good idea. He says he'll send one of his staff to bring an auto back for me and it'll cost 80-100 rupees to get to the bus station. I seem to be missing something here. Last night he's talking 5-10 rupees. Now it's 80-100. It won't break me but that's a big difference. It turns out there are two kinds of autos. Some are like your personal three-wheel taxi and go where you say. The others are like three-wheel minibuses that hold about eight people. They follow a set route—they are the cheap ones. As I said the bus is not to scale. The bus station looks like it is a block or two past the railway but it's actually seven or eight k's, hence the price.

OK. Now I understand. He sends one of his staff out to find my personal three-wheel taxi but the guy comes back five minutes later quoting 160 rupees for the fare. The manager is not going to lose face over this. He sends another guy out who returns with an auto that'll do it for 110 rupees. I accept.

The journey is both fascinating and horrible. Fascinating because of all the sights—people and places, mainly people. This is one of those National Geographic occasions because despite my years of travel I'm seeing what previously I've only seen in books and docos. When I see unusual characters in a book, I assume they are one-offs but half the people we pass could be in National Geographic. On the other hand, the bigger autos—usually the minibuses—are noisy and belch horrible fumes. I'm glad I'm wearing a cloth hat. I use it as a makeshift gas mask for the whole journey.

Apparently the auto can't drive right into the bus station. He stops outside and points to where I should be able to get my bus. After lugging my bags to where the buses wait I am told no, and someone points to where there are one or two buses back out in the street. I try one, cross the street, try another and then the next says 'yes' they go to Rishikesh.

This bus is old. The ones I used to joke about in Cambodia look modern compared to this but I don't care, so long as it gets me to Rishikesh and so long as I can get the weight of these bags off my body, I'll be happy.

Five minutes later we're on our way. It takes quite a while to clear Dehradun and until we do, there are people everywhere heading this way and that along the side of the road reminding me that India is indeed the second most populous country in the world.

We pass through some smaller (but still busy) towns on the way; some forest and it too is busy—monkeys seem to be lined along the roadside to watch cars go by; and also we go over some hilly country before we reach Rishikesh.

I have been given instructions by a friend of a friend who lives in Rishikesh. 'Walk down the road to the corner and catch an auto. Tell them you want to go to the second bridge at Laxman Jhula. It will cost you five or ten rupees.'

The bus pulls over to the side and before it backs into the station (just a vacant lot) there are auto drivers waiting to latch on to each and every passenger. I wait until the driver has backed in before I carry my bags off the bus. One auto driver has seen this foreigner with too much luggage and is waiting patiently. I tell him where I want to go. He quotes me 80 rupees.

I realise that the autos at the corner that charge 5-10 rupees are the minibus type but I don't know which way to go and with all these bags I'm reluctant to head in the wrong direction. I tell this driver what I've been told and ask where I catch these autos. He tells me it's about 2 k away and waves vaguely in no specific direction.

I try to call my friend's friend but there's no answer. Another auto driver turns up and also quotes me 80 rupees. I try the friend's friend's other number. Still no answer. I offer the driver 50 rupees but he knows I'm stuck and won't budge.

I try the first number again. Still no answer. Finally I agree to go with this driver for 80 rupees. This is not a lot of money but I think it's a reasonable assumption that if I was an Indian I'd be charged less. I resent being charged more based on race.

He grabs my big bag and puts it in his auto which is one of the bigger type but I've got it to myself. He lifts the seat up and starts the motor with a rope, the way any Australian of my age would remember we used to start motor mowers years ago. It starts put-putting straight away. I'm intrigued by this motor. What is it? Diesel? Two stroke? I ask him what sort of motor it is. All I get from him is 'six hp'.

We head off down the road. After about 100 metres we turn and there are all the autos parked—the ones that would have taken me for about 5 or 10 rupees.

As we drive through the town I am not impressed. This is supposed to be a 'holy' town but it's just as busy, noisy, dirty and polluted as Dehradun.

We travel quite a distance and eventually reach the river—the holy Ganga. By now it is not quite so busy and there are patches of beauty in the countryside.

Eventually he stops in a place that is busy and has no beauty—not to my eyes anyway. This is it? He says it is. Then where is the bridge? Just down there. He gives another of his vague waves. 'I want to go to the bridge,' I say.

He gets his rope out and starts up again and takes me several hundred metres down the hill that I wouldn't like to have been walking with these bags. Eventually he says he can't go any further. I still can't see the bridge. He waves 'Over there. Just one minute. One second.'

I try again to ring my friend's friend. Still no answer. I pay the 80 rupees—the ride really was worth it—and the driver helps me load my pack onto my back and I walk off in the direction he'd been waving.

After about 50 metres I see the bridge. But which is the guesthouse that's been recommended? I have no way of knowing. Alongside a temple there are two guys with a stall selling jewellery. One says 'Are you looking for a room?' I'm wary of touts but I really want to get rid of this load. I take a look.

It's on the second floor, which is actually the roof. It's tiny—more a cell than a room. But it's clean, has it's own bathroom with hot water and has good security. Half the roof is a terrace with 180 degree views of the Ganga, the bridge and the surrounding hills. All things considered, it's not too bad. I ask the price and for India it is amazingly cheap. I take it.

I dump my bag and go off to get some lunch. As I walk back I feel the warm sun. I'm enjoying this environment. For India it's relatively quiet. It's not unpleasant. Perhaps I'll like it here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


From cold to cough

I had very little idea of what to expect in Derhadun. I went to escape the cold of Mussoorie and with an open mind as to how long I'd stay.

My taxi driver from Mussoorie recommended Hotel White House, saying it was in a street with restrictions on traffic and therefore quieter. The building looks to be about 50 years old and apart from painting has had very little maintenance in that time. My room was quite large with an attached bathroom. It opens to a large covered verandah at the front and an uncovered area at the back.

When I was inspecting the room the hot water shower was pointed out. Later when I went to take a shower no hot water would come out of it. It would come out of the lower tap but not the shower. I took a bath Asian style but at least with warm water. Later, I mentioned this to the manager who shrugged his shoulders and said, 'That's because the geyser (hot water system) is lower than the shower head.' Yeah, I'd figured that. But why? Later again, I was told that Indian people dislike the problem of getting the temperature adjusted correctly. They prefer to run the water into a bucket and wash from that. So that's how I did it too.

On my first afternoon in Derhadun I went for a walk to check out the town. Visually I found it stimulating. It is a busy town and busy in India means noise and air pollution. Away from the cold air of Mussoorie my nose had stopped running but with all the pollution I'd developed a cough.

I've met some pleasant people in this town, found a good place to eat and the hotel is indeed quiet at night. But with all this pollution I've decided to start making enquiries about getting to Rishikesh.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


Coping with Indian food

I spent eight days in Delhi and didn't get Delhi belly. In fact, I quite liked Indian food. The easy availability of a range of vegetarian foods was a plus. In shopping malls there are often food courts that are entirely vegetarian. Spicy? Well, after all my time in Thailand I didn't find anything that challenged me. Others may need to be careful. In Thailand I often eat street food—not everything. I usually make a hygiene assessment. I was more careful in India and didn't get so relaxed as to try any street food though I suspect some of it should be safe.

In Mussoorie I had become quite relaxed about eating the food. I ate many of my meals in the hotel or guest house plus the occasional meal from a restaurant outside. So, I have no way of knowing what the culprit was but one morning I found myself with a rather extreme case of diarrhoea. It really cleaned me out. I treated it by fasting. For that day I ate nothing and drank water with electrolytes added.

If you know me personally you'll know I don't carry too much spare energy on my body. When I woke the next morning I felt totally depleted of energy. I felt drained even when sitting in meditation. Had some eggs for breakfast. The energy returned and the diarrhoea was gone. I was more careful about what I ate after that and had no further troubles during my stay in India.

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Friday, December 12, 2008


The hills are alive...

Back when I was in Cambodia, I probably commented in this blog that drivers on Cambodian highways drive with a foot on the accelerator and a hand on the horn. Other driving tools, such as the brake, are of less importance.

Here in India the horn is king and for some drivers and motorcycle riders it is used almost constantly. It's also not uncommon for motorcycles to have musical air horns fitted. Consider the amount of traffic on Indian roads—huge; consider the common attitude of Indian drivers—I'm coming through no matter what; and you learn to expect the constant music of beeping horns in India whenever you are anywhere close to a road.

In Mussoorie, staying at Ivy Bank there was very little traffic but because of the narrow winding roads drivers are still obliged to sound their horns to warn oncoming vehicles of their presence.

For those who don't enjoy this free music, it does fortunately reduce to almost nothing, at least in Mussoorie at night

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Thursday, December 11, 2008


Making it all worthwhile

One of the things I enjoy about India is the colourful saris worn by women of all ages. Even in Dehli, Western dress is much less common. By comparison, in Bangkok, traditional Thai dress is rarely seen. Young women these days favour tight jeans or short shorts.

One day in Mussoorie while dining in a restaurant that serves Tibetan, Chinese and Thai food as well as Indian I noticed two teenage girls enter wearing short shorts. It occurred to me that these were the first I'd seen in India. One girl looked like she could be Chinese, the other perhaps from one of India's north-eastern states where people look a little like Thais. They sat at the table next to ours.

As we ate I was picking up bits of their conversation—not words but the tone. It didn't sound like Hindi, more like Thai. I listened more closely then to see if I could pick out any individual words but no, nothing I recognised. Thai women normally end sentences with the word 'ka' and I wasn't hearing it. But in casual conversation among friends it might be dropped.

A slightly older woman came in and joined them and I thought she really did look Thai. I listened some more and started to hear words I could recognise. Enough to know they were definitely speaking Thai. I decided to talk to them, after all Thai people are known for their friendliness.

As we were about to leave, I said 'Kor toht khap. Khun bpen khon Thai mai khap?' (Excuse me. Are you Thai?) I wish I could share with you the amazed look on their faces. Here they were in India and a Westerner starts talking to them in their native language. We chatted for five or ten minutes mostly in Thai, sometimes in English. The woman was the mother of one of the girls who goes to school in Mussoorie. It was the daughter's birthday and the mother had come to spend it with her. She kept commenting on how well I spoke Thai. Thank you. That little conversation made all the study worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


A warm-weather lover's guide to Mussoorie

I'd prefer to be stuck in 40 degree heat than ten degree cool. For the past six years or more, I've happily avoided temperatures below 15 degrees. And now I find myself in this hill station at the foot of the Himalayas—Mussoorie. The people of Delhi (or at least the well-heeled ones) flock here by the thousands during the heat waves of India's summer months. But I'm not visiting during the summer months. I'm here during early November, the start of India's winter.

My first three days in Mussoorie were spent at Hotel Padmini Nivas which was once the palace (or at least holiday home) of a maharajah. Much of Mussoorie was built on steep hillsides and my room was built to take advantage of excellent views. There is a sun room at the front with floor to ceiling glass. It warms up beautifully during the day and keeps the whole room warm during the night. This hotel also has a reputation for its excellent Gujarati vegetarian food.

Most of the action in Mussoorie centres on The Mall. It's supposed to be for pedestrians and rickshaws only but somehow many motorcycles and a few cars find their way in too. Young guys on motorcycles are not always cautious but they usually sound their horn before they run you down.

Even at this time of the year The Mall is full of tourists, mostly Indians. It also has many vendors and shops selling food, souvenirs, clothing and just about anything else you might need. The Mall winds a bit and goes over a few hills as you might expect here in the mountains. There are also many places to take advantage of the spectacular views.

The booking at Hotel Padmini Nivas was only for three nights because a religious convention was booked in after that. Looking at some other hotels on the mall, Hotel Garhwal Terrace had nice rooms at a better rate than Hotel Padmini Nivas but I think this was only because Garhwal Terrace had already switched to off-peak rates. Hotel Padmini Nivas were due to bring their rates down a week later.

Instead of staying at the Mall, I ended up at Landour, a little further up the mountain. There I found Ivy Bank Guest House and moved in the next day.

This is a wonderful setting. If I feel like immersing myself in the local culture, meeting some of the colourful locals or doing some shopping I walk down the narrow winding road to Landour Bazaar. To immerse myself in nature I walk further up the mountain and enjoy spectacular views including the snow-capped mountains in the distance. I'm told the snow will be coming here too if I stay a little longer.

I love it here. I'd like to stay longer but for the past couple of days the clouds have come in and the temperature has dropped. Ivy Bank Guest House is very cosy but has no heating. I've got thermal underwear, a fleece jacket and a woollen hat with built-in mufflers but this is still too cold for me. I haven't heard what the temperature is but a few days back there were Americans here (from Northern USA) who were commenting on the cold. And now even the locals are wearing their cold-weather gear.

I'd love to come back when it's warmer but then I'd have to contend with crowds and higher prices. We'll see.

As a footnote I'd add that there is a huge range of eating places both in The Mall and Landour Bazaar. Prices are generally reasonable. There are also many hotels and guest houses scattered around both The Mall area and Landour. I gather they fill up in the summer months but if, unlike me, you don't mind the cold there are many to choose from in the off season at very good rates. Like most places here Ivy Bank Guest House has a dining room. They provide Indian style home-cooked meals. For a change, you can get Western style fare at Chhaya Cafe, between the guest house and the Bazaar. Recommended.

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Monday, December 08, 2008


Checking out, moving on

I have a seat on the 6.50 am train from New Delhi to Dehradun. A taxi driver and a taxi tout have both quoted me 250 rupees to get me from the youth hostel to New Delhi Railway Station. It seems a bit high. The night before my departure I spoke to the hostel reception clerk. I told him I would be checking out at six the following morning and needed to get to the station. I asked his recommendation for reliable transportation. He said to give ten minutes notice and the clerk on duty would phone a taxi for me. He quoted 150 rupees.

I set the alarm on my phone for 5.15 am and managed to get myself to the counter at 5.40. I told the clerk I needed the taxi for six o'clock and suggested they phone first before checking me out and getting my other bag out of storage. He told me the taxi would cost me 200 rupees. 'Hey,' I said. 'Your colleague told me 150 rupees last night.'

'There's a surcharge for early morning.' Didn't the other guy know that? But this is India and I'm getting used to this sort of thing.

All the business is done before six. He tells me to sit and wait as the driver will come in for me. He arrives at 6.08. Fortunately I'd given myself plenty of time. We carry my bags out and put them into the cab. I get into the back seat and wait. The driver doesn't get into the cab. After about a minute I look out the window to see if I can see him. He's over near the bushes having a pee.

One week in India has taught me that you NEVER make assumptions about price. You don't assume the driver knows the price you've negotiated with someone else. When he gets in he takes off immediately. I tell him where I'm going and quote 200 rupees. 'No,' he says. 'It's 250.'

'I was quoted 200.'

'Usually it is 200 but because of early morning it is 250.'

'No,' I say firmly. 'I was told it is usually 150 and because of early morning it is 200. I will pay you 200 or you can take me back to the hostel.' Partly I am bluffing. I don't have time to muck around. Also I don't know how much English he understands. In any case, he says nothing and keeps driving.

At this time of morning, there's not much traffic and it doesn't take long to get there—well, almost there. The street that leads to the station is chock-a-block with vehicles ranging from bicycle rickshaws to buses and it is absolute chaos. He takes me as far as he reasonably can. I grab my bags and pay his 200 rupees. He accepts—no argument.

The footpath is as crowded with pedestrians as the road with vehicles. I negotiate my way to the station carrying my three bags—virtually all my possessions. I enter through the scanner. I see security staff are checking some bags. Security in India is stricter than I've experienced anywhere else. Thank goodness I don't have to unpack all my bags.

An electronic board lists the departures and platforms—but not Dehradun. I stop, waiting for the display to change. There is a flow of people many carrying as much if not more than me. (All their possessions? Perhaps.) When I stop it seems everyone with a box or large bag bumps against me. The passageway is extremely crowded. After about a minute of this bumping the display has not changed. I decide to move on and climb the stairs to the overpass.

Stairs lead down to each platform and at the top of each set of stairs is a signboard with details in Hindi and English of the train waiting at the platform. There must be a dozen or more platforms before I reach the other side of the overpass. None of the signboards mentions Dehradun. The last one says something like 'Welcome to Northern Line' but no actual destination is mentioned. Not in English anyway.

There is a security guard or policeman (I don't know the uniforms) standing at the top of the stairs. I ask him and he points to this platform. Thankfully I don't have to make my way back through the crowd.

My carriage is right at the foot of the stairs. I find my seat with no trouble. I've made it with time to spare.

The journey to Dehradun takes about six hours and the ticket price includes basic extras like tea, breakfast and newspaper all delivered to your seat. I relax and enjoy the journey taking a few shots of the towns and villages we pass through.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008


Congratulations PAD

Thailand is a country that is very popular among Westerners. Generally, Thai people are delightful, the culture is interesting and if you don't mind the heat and a bit of rain the climate is great. If your needs are simple, it is possible to live there on a very small budget. I am just one of many who loves spending time there. Thailand can get as many farang (Westerners) as they like to stay there. We don't need to be enticed. We know the place is great.

Therefore, by the laws of supply and demand Thailand can afford to be choosy about who it allows to stay in the country. It seems to me that the Thai immigration department has been doing this for years, holding up hoops for us to jump through, in an effort to keep the number of farang down a bit. Maybe they won't need to do it anymore.

When the PAD (officially People's Alliance for Democracy but in reality People Against Democracy) closed Suvarnabhumi International Airport they did what Thai immigration has failed to do. They created a situation that many farang might find hard to cope with. We love Thailand but if we can't get in and out of the country, maybe many would rather not be there. Tourism is Thailand's greatest source of foreign income. I heard a report from Koh Samui, an island resort popular with foreigners, that the place is almost empty. Perhaps now Thai immigration will have to be nice to us to entice us to even visit the country.

Then again, maybe there'll now be an influx of tourists to Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam. Why not? They all have much to offer and some of these countries even have immigration rules and employees that make you feel welcome.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008


She who laughs loudest...

I find Indian people to be not unfriendly. If an opportunity is presented they'll ask where you are from and then launch into a conversation about cricket or whatever else they deem relevant. Generally, I'd say, Indian women are a little more shy than the men.

From time to time in the dining room of the youth hostel I'd noticed a couple of women, probably in their late 30s, who were usually accompanied by a tribe of kids. On my last full day there, I came down for breakfast and the two women were at a table without the kids. They smiled 'hello'. Breakfast wasn't ready. They were waiting too so I struck up a conversation with them.

I'm coming to learn that Indians don't always look like Indians. If you plonked these two someone in Thailand they'd probably be accepted as Thais—at least until they tried to speak the language. They come from Nagaland, one of the states in India's north-east close to the Burmese border. They told me that their ancestors had come from Mongolia. Their kids go to boarding school in Delhi. This week was a holiday so rather than bring the kids home, the two mums had come to Delhi to spend a week with them at the youth hostel. The kids were a little bored with the hostel's breakfasts so this morning the mums had come alone.

We continued to chat after breakfast arrived and I asked about their home state. 'The people are mostly Christians,' one said. It turns out that the two are sisters-in-law and one of the husbands is a pastor. Asians often assume that if one is a Westerner then one is also Christian. They are usually surprised when I tell them this is not necessarily the case.

Over breakfast we continued to chat about this and that—pleasant conversation. They both spoke good English. When we had finished one of them said, 'You realise it is my duty to tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ?'

'What do you think you can tell me? I was raised in a Christian family, went to Sunday School every week as a child and four of my siblings continue to practise Christianity.'

Generally I am tolerant of religious beliefs of others. I take a live-and-let-live attitude. But when someone starts trying to convert me, I figure they're fair game. In my younger days I had a lot of fun debating with the Jehovah's Witnesses who came knocking on my door. I was polite and respectful to my new friends but I had no qualms about explaining what I considered to be some of the shortcomings of their religion.

The one who thought it was her duty to convert me laughed out loud at times about some of my claims. I wonder, was she laughing at me or was it a nervous laugh. Anyway, we parted as friends.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Wheeling and dealing

I had arranged to meet Nazia near her place and went out from the youth hostel to see if I could find a taxi and negotiate a reasonable fare. There was only one auto there but another guy was standing chatting to the driver. This guy asked where I wanted to go. When I told him he said he could arrange a taxi for me and quoted a fare. It was very reasonable but there was a catch. I had to let the taxi driver take me to three shops. I was not required to buy anything but had to browse in an interested fashion for ten minutes in each shop. The explanation was that the driver gets fuel coupons (whatever they are) in return for bringing prospective customers to the shop.

I'm usually wary of touts but from my angle this seemed a reasonable deal. I could play the game in the shops and have no difficulty saying 'no' when needed. As an experienced traveller I also have an idea of what prices really should be in an Asian country.

I agreed to the deal, a taxi was called and off we went. I didn't even have to lie in the shops. I simply told them I was looking for some shirts for my grandchildren but I wasn't buying today. If they had what I wanted I'd be back before I left. I asked for business cards and jotted down notes. But the reality is that there was no chance I'd go back to those shops. They had some nice stuff but prices were similar to what I'd expect to pay in Australia. Let's face it, there had to be a big mark up to pay commissions to the taxi driver and the tout. There were not many customers in any of the shops and those they had were Westerners. If you buy where Westerners buy, you'll pay Westerner's prices.

The system worked for me if not the sellers who tried hard to entice me to buy. But I eventually found the souvenirs I was looking for in Rishikesh and I paid Indian prices.

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Monday, December 01, 2008


I'm not there

Friends, please do not worry. I am not in Mumbai. As it happens I have already moved on from India and these blogs are being posted after the event.

Nor am I in Bangkok. Please don't worry I've reached my next destination and feel very safe.

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