Following Dorothy along a yellow brick road

My mum always said India would be different. She would say how wonderful it was to feel part of something or to feel like you belong somewhere. I would always nod as if I understood, but in the end, I had no idea what it felt like to not belong. That’s the brilliant advantage of being Canadian. Don’t tell her I said this, but my mum was right. India was different. It was a strangely personal experience that I thought was going to turn out quite differently. It’s been hard for me to write about what it was like because I don’t know how to explain it. Despite being teased my whole life for being a coconut, I felt more at home in India than I have anywhere else in my life. But I won’t bore you with the details of my feelings. Gross. I will say, though, it has greatly impacted my world view, and I sometimes wonder if all this will normalize. Being in Australia at the moment hasn’t really helped either.

Australia – It’s like America and Canada all smooshed into one! It’s a wonderfully multi-cultural, but surprisingly racially segregated (by choice – no Jim Crow here) place where I can’t say things like, “It’s cuz I’m brown, isn’t it?” because apparently, it is because I’m brown. Having been here for a month, I have to say, Melbourne has a beautiful charm. A friend keeps comparing this city to Montreal, and though I have vehemently disagreed in the past, I’m starting to see her p.o.v. Aside from the early bedtime, Melbourne is quite artsy. And the colonial architecture is quite gorgeous. We got shortchanged, Vancity. The city is full of great (and expensive…if you’re still unemployed as I am) eateries, and charming watering holes. There’s always somewhere new to go, and thus no need to go anywhere twice. Considering how far away Australia is from…well everything, it’s wonderful to see Melbourne’s appreciation for authenticity. Mind you, the poutine still needs some work. But in the end, this is not Canada, and I must say, I’ve never appreciated our “salad bowl” approach to multiculturalism until now. But I can’t blame Australia for my malaise. Only India can take the credit for that, a country that changes the lives of all who visit. Indian or not.

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In a land of gods, where is God hiding?

I’ve had a few stressful drives in my life and this was definitely on the list. I’m jammed into a jeep with 11 other people barreling down the mountain side from Darjeeling. This is not a ride for those who get car sick. But we’re ok. We arrive in Siliguri well in time to catch out train to Kolkata. But how to get to the train station? Timed perfectly, as usual, a motor rickshaw pulls up.
“NJP?”
“Train station?”
“Ha.”
“How much?”
“20 rupees (40 cents)”
“10.”
Shit. He just drove off. I guess 20 is a fair price. And so we start walking in the direction of the station, but one of my friend’s has found a cycle rickshaw who will take us for 20 rupees total. We can’t fit all on one rickshaw and once again, as if they can sense it, a 2nd rickshaw pulls up.
“Whole rickshaw to the train station 20 rupees?”
He bobbles his head.
“He bobbled his head.”
“What does that mean??”
“I think it means yes. Let’s go.”
“Does it though? I mean it looks like yes and no…”
We pile into both rickshaws, backpacks and all, and begin what turns out to be a very long and uncomfortable 20 minute cycle rickshaw ride to NJP Junction. We dismount awkwardly.
“200 rupees ($4).”
“Did he just say 200 rps? is he out of his mind?”
“That fucking bobble head.”
And so the argument begins. You said 20. But that was to the market. We took you to the station. Yes, we only wanted to go to the station. We never said market.
And now crowd is forming. Suddenly there are 10 people standing around us. In India, disputes are a type of sport. Everyone puts their 2 cents worth in and in this case, many had an opinion.

We offer both drivers 50 rupees ($1). They’ve dropped their fee to 100 rps, but even then, it’s highway robbery. The spectators have also begun to chime in agreeing with us. The fact of the matter is, you can’t agree to 20 and then ask for 200. “Give them each 50 and walk away” We thank the spectators and start heading inside, but oddly enough the crowd doesn’t dissipate. There’s a moral issue on the table. How do we treat tourists? For many, tourists are viewed as rich so what’s the big deal if you extort them a little? It’s only a couple of dollars to them. But like everything else it’s relative. My supposed wealth has to last me quite a long time and it’s not being replenished. But after visiting Kolkata, our state of poverty and wealth is astronomically different in comparison. 3000 people live in the city landfill. They spend their days digging thru the mounds of trash searching for the ever valuable plastic. If they are lucky, they’ll find the thicker variety which will yield them a higher selling price. In a small village on an island in the Bay of Bengal, women in saris drag nets behind them during the cooler hours searching for baby shrimp. They empty their nets into bowls and watch for movement as the shrimp are thread-like and barely visible.One lady brought over a bowl and showed us the shrimp. She only had two. Each will only earn her 2 rupees a piece and those took her an hour to catch. Four rupees per hour. 7 cents. If she collects a full kilo, she will get 150 rupees. IF.

In the end, can you blame them for trying to get a little extra? It’s not right, but if God forgot about you, would you care about right and wrong?

On the topic of race

I’m sure many of you have heard me make a comment about me being brown. It’s practically my tag line. I’m of the mind that I would rather embrace our differences than mute them or brush them under the rug. But back home, my offhand comments are often shocking. While traveling, however, race is something that is ever prevalent and must be acknowledged in order to understand how you’re being perceived.

Where do you come from? A question even us Vancouverites ask when we meet tourists. My answer is always Canada. But no one ever believes me.

Where do you really come from?

No really. I come from Canada. In fact, in Morocco, the immigration agent wouldn’t stamp my passport with my exit visa until I told him where my father was born! The perception of North America is that everyone is white. If you’re of colour, you are an immigrant regardless of the fact that immigration is beyond its first generation.

For myself, I’ve come to terms with this commentary. It’s no longer unusual. In the end it’s about perceptions. And also, it can be about taking advantages. I am traveling with two white girls and in Cambodia both, one more than the other, received quite a bit of unwanted attention. But I barely got a second glance. In fact, in Battambang, we were at the market for our cooking class and a whole gaggle of older women started pointing at me and talking to each other. I asked our instructor what they were saying and he said they think I look part Cambodian, part European, and part Indian. At least they got one part right.

In Morocco I was quite popular mainly because Bollywood is huge there. In Thailand I again get overlooked and in Tanzania there are so many gujaratis, there was no fascination in me. If anything, my race has been a blessing when traveling because it allows me to go by unnoticed. I can explore without being harassed too much and I don’t feel like I need to cover up further or alter my behaviour. For a change, I’m the majority and it’s kind of nice!

Adventures thru Bangkok

I’m pretty sure I fell in love with Bangkok almost immediately. What’s not to love? Eateries and watering holes galore. Great shopping. Reasonable pricing. I could spend a lot of time wandering and discovering the streets and alleyways. And even with it’s big city grandeur, there is no shortage of Thai hospitality. An afternoon on my own in Bangkok proved all of this to be true.
I began at the golden Buddah. I spent an hour weaving my way through exhibits and unmarked hallways with the aid of the staff. My next stop was the reclining Buddah at Wat Po, which served to be a more difficult feat only because I would have to navigate my way through Chinatown. Here’s where things went awry. really, a map is useless as I found myself going down narrow alleyways full of merchants selling everything you can imagine. There was even an entire store dedicated to Hello Kitty! Don’t worry. I took a picture. Not only were these narrow allies chalk a block full of people, food carts were also trying to make their way thru along with some motorbikes. One thing I’m learning is that if there is no room, there’s still plenty of room. Finally, after an hour of aimless wandering, I pulled out my map and began to dissect my surroundings. I was lost. I had no idea which way to go. And it was then out of the blue I heard a gentle voice speaking in the most perfect English with a hint of a Thai accent. “Can I help you find something miss?” the lady asked. I was so grateful for any help I could get. She informed me that Wat Po was at least a half an hour walk away for a local and it was hardly a direct route. She advised taking Bus #1 for about 6 baht ($0.25). A bus ?? That’s a guarantee to get lost even further! But she was confident and even walked me to the bus stop.
A bus stop is an absolute misnomer. The busses don’t stop. The slow down just enough for you to grab the handles and jump on. The same goes for getting off. As I jumped on the bus, afraid it would leave without me, or worse, drag me along side it, I was welcomed by the fare collector who immediately recognized me as a tourist, grabbed my wrist and propelled me into a seat. Lord knows I wouldn’t have been able to stand on this thing. I paid my fare and spent the next 10 minutes fascinated by my surroundings. Did I mention the bus had no windows so I could hang my head out the bus like a happy pooch barreling down the highway? I saw my stop, but didn’t know how to get off. Remember the lack of stopping?? So I caught the attention of the fare lady and pointed outside. She yelled,”Wat Po?” I nodded. And she urgently shooed me off the bus while instructing the driver to slow down. I made it.
Luckily, I also made it in time to watch the monks praying and missed the mad rush to see the Reclining Buddah. All in all, i’d say it was successful if not adventuresome.

We’re now in Phuket. An absolute money sucking tourist trap. We made a pit stop in Myanmar day before yesterday to renew our visas as the prospect of Thai jail is less than appealing. We also grabbed some veggie samosas in Myanmar which I think is the cause of my now 2 day illness. I’m hoping I’m well enough sooner rather than later so I can at least enjoy some beach time. Then back to flooded Bangkok, and onwards more chaotic New Delhi!

It’s easy to smile in Cambodia

I feel like smiles are rare at home. They’re harder to draw out of people. Even when we do smile, we tend to force it. Why aren’t we more happy to see each other? Over 30 years ago, the Khmer Rouge blew through this country with a force. Left a vulgar scar across the face of every cambodian, and yet they smile. They smile when you come back at 1130 at night and wake them up because your hotel room key isn’t working. They smile because you’re different. They smile because you’ve made eye contact. They smile because they see you waving at their children. They smile when their child takes his tricycle and tries to run you down with it. They smile when you are curious about what they’re cooking. They smile when they know they are extorting you for that tuk tuk ride. They smile when you say hello. They smile when you say goodbye. They smile.

Today we arrived in Battambang, the 2nd largest city in Cambodia. It has similar vulgarities as Phnom Penh, but people seem to be genuinely happy to have us visit their city. We were lucky enough to fall upon their Water Festival today taking in street food and boat races. Our goal here is to get a cooking lesson and to ride the bamboo train. The rest is just gravy!

A montage of 3 seconds clips

I can understand why people don’t like long bus rides. I mean bus seats are rarely comfortable and the risk of there not being any A/C if you’re in a hot country. Going to the bathroom, also another challenge as mainly you have to wait for the bus driver to make his few scheduled stops. And let’s not forget how sore our bodies get. But I have to say, there’s something charming about riding the bus to the next destination. Some things you don’t see when you fly somewhere.

Yesterday on my way to Siem Reap, I saw a number of scenes I wouldn’t have otherwise seen had we taken a different mode of transportation. October is the rainiest month of the year in Cambodia and flooding is not unusual. In fact, some children, as I noticed yesterday, quite appreciate the rains as now their front yards have swimming pools to play in with their other friends! I also noticed that people tend to continue on with their daily business even if it is raining. It’s a mild inconvenience. But I suppose that changes with heavy rains. A number of homes were submerged in water, even if they were on stilts, a sight you wouldn’t see often.I also had the pleasure of watching local fishermen and women set up their fishing nets. In fact, it seemed a little interesting how at first there were many people waist deep in the murky marshy river water setting up their fishing nets, but the further north we came the more people were out there with fishing poles.

Oxen were grazing, some were wading through “puddles.” One ox had his head so far into a hay stack, I wasn’t sure where he began and the hay ended! Teenagers were playing basketball, barefoot!, outside of school. Others were playing volleyball. One town seemed to specialize in making Buddhist carvings out of stone. Large ones. My favourite sight of all, though, would have to have been the children playing a game. Two kids hold up a rope about 6 feet apart from each other while on their knees. Both kids seemed to employ the same technique for holding the rope as they both needed to hold it taught above their heads as another one of their friends jumped over it, high jump style. I saw that image in less than 3 seconds, while driving by on a bus. An opportunity I would have otherwise missed out on.

Today we go to see the great Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is a bit of a party town, but it is much more relaxed and well paced than Phnom Penh. We’ll be here for a few days and then, who knows?

I seem to have misplaced October 3rd….

It’s 645am and I am wide awake. Somewhere in the mix of all this I lost October 3rd. It existed for about 3 hours and suddenly …13 hours later it was October 4th. And it was on October 4th that I landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. First thoughts? How the hell did I just lose 24 hours of my life and end up in Mexico? Anyone? 2nd thought? Those motorcycles look scary not to mention the lanes and actual sides of the road one drives on seem to be merely a suggestion. Maybe I’ll just stop watching the road.
Phnom Penh holds the allure of most capital cities. It’s big, smelly, and pretty boring. Mind you, I haven’t been to the Killing fields yet, so my perception could change. One thing that is an overwhelming sight is the garbage. Vancity, you thought our garbage strike was bad? We ain’t got nothing on PP. Garbage is everywhere. In fact, whilst on my drive from the airport into town (a mere 9kms that took 30 mins to drive) there was one particular street that had vendors lined up on either side and about a foot of garbage all the way down the street. I don’t plan on shopping there.
Our intention is to not stay here for too long. The countryside has a reputation for being quite stunning so we’ll begin at Angkor Wat and move on from there. As Cambodia is less developed than say Vietnam, transportation into most of the rural areas we want to go is limited therefore expensive. We’ll just have to see where the wind takes us!!