May 20, 2008


:: Showdown at the Border ::

The Indian-Pakistani border is one of the strangest borders we've been across. There is no visible trade or movement of people between Pakistan and India so there is only a trickle of pedestrian traffic at the best of times. In the evenings thousands of Indians and Pakistanis travel to their respective sides of the border for the "closing of the border ceremony" to cheer on their 6ft 5" + border guards. They've even built grandstands to house the crowd. It's a pantomime of an affair evoking national pride on both sides. After 20 minutes of posturing, marching, throwing dirty looks at each other, high kick marching and violently throwing their gate open and slamming them closed both flags are inched down the flagpoles - one cannot be higher than the other as it suggests superiority. From the Indian border it's only about 25 minutes to Lahore but it's definitely worlds apart.

:: Indian Border Guard (Giant ) ::

We spent a week in Lahore waiting for our Iranian visa to come through and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Pakistan was created as a country in 1947 after the British partitioned the north of India into Hindu and Muslim states. This action resulted in a massive movement of Hindus south into India and Muslims north into Pakistan - with lots of blood spilt along the way.

Having the same roots as India we expected Pakistan to be very similar, but were surprised by the number contrasts. Lahore is a modern city with big wide streets and traffic lights (that are obeyed). When we left India it seems like we left the crowded, disorganised hecticness and organised chaos of everyday life behind. In Amritsar our diet was totally vegetarian. 50 km away, Lahore is a vegetarian's nightmare, meat meat meat is all that can be got - and as a Muslim nation the cow is no longer sacred.

Lahore has received a lot of attention in the Western media this year so I'm sure our family and friends reading this will have a distorted impression of what the city is like. One of the first things we noticed was a heavy riot police presence outside of the city mosques. Around the corner from our guesthouse was a building that was bombed a couple of months ago - apparently it was the highest intensity blast and all the windows in the hostel were blown out. A couple of evenings as we sat talking to other travellers we heard what could be gunshots ... We noticed all of these things; coming to Lahore aware and trying to avoid danger. In reality when you talk to locals in Lahore you find out that the bombings were targeted on government buildings, the police presence is normal and there for every one's protection, the "gunshots" are more than likely fireworks for a wedding celebration and you are as safe in Lahore as any other city in the world. Recent political events have taken their toll however. The judges have yet to be reinstated and people are anxious for promised change. Ordinary life for the people has been affected by an increase in food prices and there are multiple powercuts daily as the electricity grid struggles to meet the needs of the people.

As a Muslim nation the Pakistan people are among the most welcoming in the world. We didn't come across any aggressive touts, even the autorickshaw drivers are courteous. It's impossible to walk around Lahore without getting adopted by a local who ensures you're going the right way. A couple of times people paid our bus fare as a token of their hospitality. In essence it's a society of honesty where you can stop being paranoid that everyone is trying to take you to the cleaners and make a rupee out of you.

Visually Lahore is a city dominated by mosques and populated by men in Salwar Kameez and women wearing hajibs and chandors. Females travelling to the country are expected to respect the Muslim hajib rules which really equates to wearing a long sleeved top that amply covers your bum and a headscarf. As opposed to other Muslim countries the women dress very colourfully seeing women dressed completely in black is an exception.

Our week in Lahore was spent at the Regal Inn Guesthouse - an infamous guesthouse that attracts most of the backpackers passing through. It's location on the crossroads between Asia and Middle East means that it has evolved into the unofficial centre of the latest information from travellers coming from either direction. We arrived on Thursday which is renowned as being music night. Malik - the owner of the guesthouse organises his guests to attend a local shrine where sufi music is being played. Without going into lots of detail, it was a wild introduction to Pakistan. Throngs of men jammed together in the dark smoking charras and shaking their heads to the mesmerising drumming of the Gongasain Brothers (one of whom is deaf) which started around 10pm and continued until very late. Very full on.

The number of travellers in the region at the moment has dropped off due to security fears - so it's only the most brave or hardy coming through at the present time. Naturally this leads to a rather unusual bunch of people - some whose next port of call was Afghanistan. The mix was broadly Canadian, Japan, Chinese, Moroccan, Korean, Spanish and French. Most people were hanging around in 45 degree heat waiting for visas or resting before heading on the road again. The result was a group of people sitting around hotly discussing issues like the Chinese girls attitude to Tibet, what the Japanese guy thought about whaling, the small matter of the "Rock" between Morocco and Spain etc. Suffice to say it was real "don't mention the war" material.

When we did escape from the hostel it was out to get fantastic icecreams, strawberry milkshakes and cold coffee shakes from Chaman across the road. We found Food Street, an atmospheric open air eating street a few kilometres away and tried out some great Pakistani dishes. Reminiscent of Vietnam we hit the tailors to get some hajib friendly clothes made for Iran. The rest of our time was spend to-ing and fro-ing to the Iranian embassy to get our visas. Once we got them it was off to the station to get a train ticket towards to Iranian border.

Getting our train ticket was a total fiasco, we were informed that we were entitled to a substantial discount so we headed off in search of the "Commercial Office" of Pakistan Railways only to be redirected to another outlying office. Eventually we found the right team of people who could rubberstamp a concession form and send us on our way. His office was at the back of a vast complex of rooms full of men sitting around looking at folders covered in dust. I don't think any work had been done by anyone in years. It was bureaucracy at it's best. Duplicate copies of everything, everything stamped and placed in a folder not a telephone in sight. We walked past tables of open folders with the date 2004 on them. After 30 minutes of hanging around discussing Imran Khan's appeal and Ricky Ponting's captaincy we were on our way with our all important concession form - an aged delicate piece of paper, parchment colour with letters uneven from typewriter production. We took our concession to the ticket office and were told that it was worthless and couldn't be used on the train we wanted. Problem is we don't think that anyone has communicated this to the guys back in the dusty office. So hours wasted .... but not as many hours as the guys in the Pakistani Train Office are wasting day in day out.

:: Flat out like a lizard drinking.... not ::

Armed with a half dozen boiled eggs, a loaf of bread and jar of strawberry jam we boarded the train from Lahore to Quetta. The train journey takes 24 hours from point to point, then turns around and does the journey back. The train left 2 hours late, which essentially means it's eternally late, it can never make up the time. We shared our business class aircon berth with four Pakistani business men. One of them a car smuggler involved in what he termed "risky business". The train was surprising;y comfortable and we arrived the following afternoon in Quetta dustfree. Just before we arrived one of the guys bought a newspaper and announced that the border between Pakistan and Iran at Taftan had been closed for "security reasons". This was the worst news we could have got as we were stuck in limbo and had no choice but to proceed onwards and hope that the border would have reopened by the time we reached it.

Quetta is a frontier town with a diverse mix of people, Afghanis, Taliban, Nomads, outlaws etc. We'd heard mixed reports about Quetta. One girl we'd met told us people had thrown stones at her there, another guy had said it was one gun shop after another and it didn't exactly entice you to stick around. We didn't see anything out of the ordinary there - mind you it was a fleeting trip before we headed off on a night bus to the Iranian border town of Taftan.

This was the section of the journey we were looking forward to the least. The stretch of land between Quetta and Taftan - the heart of Balochistan - is open desert that skirts the Afghani border. If there's anywhere you're going to be ambushed it's along this road in the dead of night. The route is a busy one so there is relative safety in numbers. We did make a special effort to keep the curtains closed so as not to be a target if someone decided to take a pop at the bus - I think that was just the imagination playing up! Being the only foreigners on the bus we had to get off at regular police checkpoints so they could take our names and passport numbers. Luckily we'd a smooth journey, our only complaint being the drivers inability to fix the air conditioning at a comfortable temperature. Our journey to Taftan ended at 6am when we were unceremoniously dumped out in Taftan at the door of a restaurant open and waiting to relieve everyone of the last of their Pakistani Rupees. After a quick cup of tea we walked the last kilometre to border and waited for it open.

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May 13, 2008

Indian Observations

Observations on India.

Over the past five months we've come across some interesting idiosyncrasies that make India just that little bit unique, here are some of them....

Cricket -
Indians are absolutely fanatical about the sport. Even the poorest most remote villages have a boundary marked out and a makeshift wicket in place. Cricket pitches are snookered into the most impossible of spaces, an uphill street, by a river bank, on a rooftop. School yards typically have multiple games on the go. And that's just the children! There are three dedicated national TV channels showing around the clock highlights of world cricket. Every business has a television or radio in the corner with the cricket on. For the male adults it's the main source of conversation. Once the Australian passport comes out it's predictably a "Ricky Ponting this...", "Brett Lee that..." twenty minute debate. The cricket players themselves are national superstars enjoying lucrative sponsorship deals. During our time in India the controversy over Symonds and racial abuse was brewing and the Indian media was playing into the hands of the emotional fanatics. The normal mudslinging followed by players reactions was meticulously over-reported. Speaking from my neutral standing point - it was amusing to watch an interview with an Australian player, one sentence would typically be taken out of context of the whole interview and it would suddenly be making the "breaking news" ticker across the Indian news channels. This happened so regularly that it was clear the whole exercise was to hype up the crowds and create heightened tension and excitement rather than animosity.

The MRP (Maximum Retail Price)
It's a godsend to travellers - and an idea that should be adapted elsewhere in this world. The MRP or Maximum Retail Price is the highest price, inclusive of taxes, that can be charged for any item. Everything in India from bottled water, soap, televisions, kitchen tiles and cars all have an MRP clearly marked on it as part of the packaging. The MRP is designed to give the shopkeeper a healthy profit and to regulate pricing. In theory everyone benefits - in practise there are opportunists who'll blatantly and illegally overcharge travellers. If you're heading to India the MRP is your friend.

The Indian Head Wiggle -
The infamous Indian head wiggle, it's a bizarre Indian trait that takes alot of getting used to. Does it mean a "yes" or a "no" ... in actual fact it can mean "yes", "no", "maybe" or "I don't know but I'm being friendly" depending on who is answering the question. In short the golden rule is that you can never ever trust a straight answer out of a wiggle. To do this is to assume the answer. Infuriatingly there have been countless times when we've enquired about rooms or asked about buses to a destination only to get a wiggle back. I've often wiggled back at them asking does this mean yes or no ... only to get another wiggle in return. There is a solution though, you simply don't ask a question that has a binary yes or no answer i.e. "Which bus goes to Delhi?" or "How much are your rooms?" this tactic forces the answerer into a worded answer which dispells any ambiguous wiggling.

Once this questioning technique is mastered the battle is half over. Our western nod indicating "no" is very very similar to an Indian wiggle and is as such determined as one by Indians. We've been full to the brim in restaurants and the waiter has come over to dole out another load of rice and curry, naturally our automatic response has been to very vigorously nod to the negative. This nod "No" is interpreted as a "bring it on" and the food starts appearing on the plate. There is only one way we've found to stem the tide is to put our hand over the plate physically creating a barrier and say "no" resisting any impulsive movement of the head. It's actually very difficult to do.

Queueing -
The British left behind the notion of an orderly queue and for the most part people know the rules but don't really follow them. When someone comes to join a queue they'll regularly slot themselves into a space in the queue rather than join the back. It's almost as if the space is a delimiter between those who are in the queue and those who are considering joining the queue but haven't yet committed - hence the space. If a "slotter" into the queue is challenged they'll adamantly defend their positioning truly believing they are next in line. Once you make it to top of any queue it's a free for all as there is always someone with a special need that merits a complete queue skip more often than not it's opportunism.

When it comes to ladies it's a different story altogether, by right a lady can go straight the top of any queue and be served next. This leads to the conundrum of two queues at the one counter, one of ladies and one men. In this case the rule is that the queues are serviced in a round robin fashion. In busy places like train stations there is the concept of an exclusive "ladies queue". Skipping of any nature in this queue is simply not an option. It's a civilised yet cutthroat military style line where everyone knows precisely who is next. In an effort to keep things tight and eliminate any potential gaps the ladies bury their knuckles in the small of the back of the person in front and lean in. The result is an uncomfortable, painful pressure to lean forward and psychological push towards the front. As the ladies queue is generally shorter than any of the general queues most of the women have been solicited to buy tickets by men. At Varanasi train station there were so many men trying to skip to the top of the ladies queue that a policeman had to come along with a big stick to disperse the menfolk and patrol the ladies area.

City Eating -
In big Indian cities supporting millions of people you would expect numerous cheap and cheerful restaurants to service the masses. In reality in many of the cities there is a surprising dearth of budget eating places. Restaurants tend to be of the more expensive airconditioned, white table cloth variety. So the question arises - where does everyone eat? The answer is at the street stalls. City workers seem to snack continuously during the day. There are different snacks depending on the time of day and there are no queueing rules when it comes to getting close to a busy street vendor. Small carts can be found in every city whipping up chappatis, dhals, samosas, deserts and a host of different snacks for thousands of people. Every corner has it's stall brewing up chai sold in disposable terracotta cups, one user only, then it's smashed on the ground.

Alcohol -
As a Hindu nation alcohol is not consumed by the vast majority of Indians. In emerging well to do cities like Mumbai and Bangalore there are lots of fancy bars and nightclubs. These places are of the exception and accessible only to an elite few. For the ordinary citizen alcohol is consumed quickly outside the ubiquitous 'English Wine Shop'. The Wine Shops are small shops hidden away behind security grills. Huge measures of cheap brandy or whiskey are served out through a hatch in plastic cups. There is no social element to consumption, groups of men gather, fire back some seriously strong shots and stagger home drunk. There is no middle ground, it's all or nothing. The alcohol itself is priced on volume rather than on strength. So it's cheaper to buy a half bottle of whiskey or brandy than a beer - this encourages consumption of more potent liquors. Without any social aspect to consumption this seems set to continue as a growing concern.

The advertising of alcohol is another bizarre aspect of India. India makes it's own brands of beers and spirits, all of which are heavily advertised on TV but under the guise of other products. Young models will dance around drinkless having a good time and then a ridiculous voiceover will come on saying Royal Challenge Golf Accessories (Whiskey) or White Mischief Holidays (Vodka) or Fosters Packaged Drinking Water (Beer). Not sure who is kidding who.


An odd thing we've noticed as backpackers in India is that our contact with Indian females has been very limited. We mostly deal with people in the service industries and 99% of the waiters, hotel staff, cleaners, shop keepers have been men. We have rarely come across a women in any of these jobs and has a result have had very little normal interaction with Indian women to the extent that when we have seen a women in a shop we've actually gone out of our way to buy from her. When we stayed with Krishna's family in Chennai we had a great opportunity to ask his mother lots of questions and meet with his female family and friends and get a balanced view of life in India.

The definite observation on Indian women is that they are the most colourfully dressed women in the world. In the dirtiest dustiest villages worlds away from automatic washing machines the women sport bright clean saris. I think elsewhere in the world we'd definitely take the easy way out and opt for brown smocks that don't show the dirt!

Boarding Trains and Buses

Not a big observation, more one that has amused us over the months. In any village, city, town for extra thrill the preferred method of boarding a train or bus is whilst the vehicle is in motion. Men will always wait until the last moment to run alongside the bus and board in a dramatic fashion. Hanging on for dear life is not a thrill we've spend too much time tapping in to.

India is a fascinating country to have spent time in. Its diversity of people, landscape and just about everything else you could imagine, keeps you interested, challenged and feeling the life spirit of its people. Don't let anything put you off tasting India for yourself, the only way you will generate your own feelings is to give it a go yourself. See you there.

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May 1, 2008

To The Border....

:: Torch Protest in Dharamasala ::

Our little break in Australia has reset our travel stamina and tolerance. Last month a six hour bus journey would have been a piece of cake. The first five and a half hour journey we did from Delhi to Rishikesh was an agonisingly long journey. We were shocked to do a time check at what seemed like three hours only to find that we'd been only a mere 52 minutes on the road. We've definitely been underestimating how hard long journeys actually are if you're not used to them.

Rishikesh is widely known as the yoga capital of the world, it's many ashrams, schools and retreat houses are apparently the place to learn. We didn't stay long enough to bend ourselves into any shapes but it definitely comes across as a serious place rather than a backpacker hangout. We were expecting glitzy jewellery shops, leather stores, funky restaurants & cafes like Pushkar. Instead its shops are somber and run down, there are limited restaurants and overall a more serene atmosphere - which is refreshing. Hopefully the temptation to change to chase the dollar won't supersede the meditative environment that appeals to serious enlightenment seekers local and foreign alike.

Journeying on we stopped overnight in the city of Chandigarh; we'd high hopes for the place. The city boasts a high standard of living and the highest per capita income in the India. Designed in the 60's Chandigarh city is like an enormous park divided into numbered sectors - from any road all you can see are green spaces and trees. The manicured roundabouts, beautiful parks and signposted numbered sectors all point towards an orderly smart town. We eventually reached the centre, sector 17 and all expectations were dashed. The city centre was a sprawling row of alcohol shops, discount stores and a smattering of self satisfied guesthouses charging the most expensive prices in India. The city excites lots of people, we ran into a couple of travellers who were on their third night there. Then we met a couple more who were counting the hours down until they could hop on a bus out of there.

We were of the latter variety - at six am the following morning we were hopping on a local bus to the "big" bus stand. Amongst the early morning commuters were a little old man and his wife who seated themselves in the "ladies" section of the half empty bus. The bus driver promptly let a roar and kicked the old man out of his seat gesturing at free unisex ones down the back. Things didn't get any simpler down the back, the bus (doing 5 minutes journeys to and from the main bus stand all day) had designated seats for a broad section of society - ladies, handicapped, seniors, the blind and freedom fighters all had demarked seats. Seating oneself was a minefield of political correctness.

7 hrs later we arrived in Dharmasala way up in the mountains. The area is famous as the home in exile of the Dalai Lama, thousands of Tibetans and an inordinate amount of professional beggars. What made this place remarkable to us was firstly all the smiling Buddhist monks and Tibetan faces around and secondly the proud display of the Tibetan flag flying high over almost every building. On our journey through Tibet we'd never actually seen a Tibetan flag. It was touching to see it on every wall along with the picture of the Dalai Lama.

The town itself is perched in the mountains surrounded by snow peaks. Every evening there is a procession of monks and locals with candles down the street to the monastery. It was topical time to visit as the Olympic Torch makes it way around the world sparking debate on the Tibetan issue. We went along to an informative talk by an visiting academic on Tibetan history from a Chinese point of view - it was enlightening to listen to the Chinese side of the story and why Tibet is so important to them. It was interesting to then actually look at what the Tibetans are asking for. Rather than a Free Tibet it's a level of autonomy lesser to that that Hong Kong and Taiwan enjoy. So in fact a precedence has already been set is fully functioning to solve the problem.

On the day of the Torch relay in Delhi a march and rally was held in Dharamasala. It was a very emotional display; men, women and school children along with the monks and nuns paraded though the streets petitioning for human rights and the freeing of Tibet. Old men and men stood transfixed in small cafes watching world reaction to their plight following demonstrations across the world. Spending time in Dharmasala amongst this exiled community does make you feel an urgency to resolve the issue and let the people live freely and practise their religion unpersecuted.

Our final stop in India was in the city of Amritsar 30 km from the Pakistani border. The is the centre of the Sikh religion and home to their holiest site the Golden Temple. Pilgrims travel here by the thousands and are warmly received with free accommodation, free food and free transfer to the bus/train station.

The kitchens feed up to 30,000 people a day, it was fascinating to watch a team of hundreds peel onions, chop vegetables, wash dishes, throw buckets of water over the marble floors and generally volunteer their services to the upkeep of the temple.

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