Sunday, March 26, 2006

India Part 3: I sum up thousands of years of history and hundreds of hours of travel in a single post

April 2nd, 12:05

BANGKOK, Thailand

We have moved on, we have ventured far and wide.

The last post described, fairly in depth, one and a half days. As those days were witness to several remarkable events, they were remarked upon. Since then, YY (Yeah Yeah, also known as Evan, my traveling companion) and I have traversed much of the length, and only a bit of the breadth of India. We have taken more or less a North-Western route straight up through the country, and it is about these travels that is the concern of this writing.

In short...lets see what the hell we've been up to.

We left the insanity of Goa, and boarded what would be the first of a plethora of long haul buses that would bump, fling, roll and shake us around this strange country. YY wisely booked us a "sleeper" bus, which meant that, theoretically, we would be able to sleep. What I was not informed of, was of the necessary proximity of other sleepers that occurs on these buses that are designed first for squeezing as many people in as possible, followed a distant second by comfort.

Evan and me got close

About 10 hours later, and sympathizing greatly with those balls that get blown around during lottery drawings, we arrived in Mumbai. I had gotten a bit sick in Anjuna (veg-sweet and sour soup of all things) so of course, the first thing that we sought out was a McDonalds so that I could feel confident in the food that I was eating. Sounds stupid, but sometimes you just need the Golden Arches when everything else makes you want to vomit.

We spent a large portion of our day attempting to book train tickets to our next destination, the city of Anjuna. Without lapsing into a fiery tirade against all things bureaucratic and Indian, suffice it to say that after 4 separate cab rides, numerous arguments with officials of varying degrees of power whose attempts to foil our planning usually increased in an inverse proportion to the amount of power they actually had, and finally, a visit to a tiny, backwater, hidden ticket office that is supposedly the source of all tourist train tickets in India, via a subterranean cavern accessed by possessing the key of light and the scepter of power and by combining them to reveal the location of the jade monkey, which led us to our destination. If you are hearing the Indiana Jones theme right now, you should go watch it because those are superb movies. Stomach churning but mission accomplished, we hit Mumbai to see the sights...and promptly sat down to watch an english movie (Syriana by the way...very excellent).

Maybe we should have armed ourselves and gone to this office instead...By the way, why are they lumping together Freedom fighters and Senior Citizens? Puzzle that one for a while...

Then we saw some more things in Mumbai. Lovely city.

This picture is for my dad. What the hell was this car doing here?

Bird flu? I aint heard of no stinkin' bird flu!?!

Moving on.

We boarded our sleeper train for Anjuna and got underway. I slept a bit, but had some difficulty as a 30-some-odd family of Indians had a full meal on the berths below us. On Indian trains, in sleeper class (at least the third class one that we were on) there are 3 bunks ranged over a wall, with a complementary set of three on the other side, perhaps two feet apart. What this affords the traveler is the opportunity to become intimately involved in the affairs of the other passengers. What they look like, who their children are, what they are all eating for dinner. Attendant to these points, you also get to know, quite well, what everyone's individual olfactory signature consists of.

To put it more bluntly, you get the pleasure of smelling absolutely everything about everybody. This is not something that you would, if given a choice, choose to experience. In fact, you would most likely be willing to pay considerable sums of money to avoid such an experience. Instead, I found myself (upset stomach still mind you) wafting in the curry, masala, aloo and various other Indian foods that I had been assiduously avoiding all day for fear of bodily rejection. On top of that, I'm fairly certain that some of the younger occupants of the train carriage may have been in need of a new diaper, and over 10 hours, probably several new diapers. Unfortunately, diaper changing on trains is apparently passe in India, so I just had to learn to love it.

I'm still working on it.

We arrived in Anjuna at about 4:30 in the morning and wandered around aimlessly til YY was able to secure us lodging. We spent the next day or so poking around Anjuna, but our main point in heading there is that it is a gateway town to a place called Ellora.

Ellora is a village, about an hour down the road from Anjuna which boasts some of the holiest and most intricately carved caves in all of India. As with most of the places that are worth traveling to in India, it is a popular pilgrimage spot and we saw many folks there doing their pilgrimage thing, which was lovely.

An enormous temple carved out of a mountain.

Sort of secret caves

We left Anjuna via a 12 hour "sleeper" bus to Bhopal. Theoretically, when you buy a ticket for something to take you somewhere, you would expect that when you exit your transport, you will be in the place that the ticket says that you are going. The problem with thinking like this in India is that you will spend much of your time 1. angry and 2. confused. A better course of action is to plan on arriving somewhere around where the ticket says that you will arrive, and to be happy that you have made it that far. Maybe even tip the driver.

So it was that we found ourselves, 9 hours into a 12 hour trip, pulled over on the side of the road at 4:30AM (many strange things happen in India at around 4 in the morning) being yelled at to get off the bus. "Great" I thought, "we made it earlier than we expected."

Of course we did. We made it to the side of a road in the middle of nowhere way ahead of schedule. The bus had broken down. Okay, no problem, the bus company will just send another one.

(Pause for uproarious laughter, wipe a tear)

So the not-so-friendly driver basically shouted us onto a local bus that was passing through, and already full of people. Seeing as how we were a full coach class bus full of people and luggage, this of course made perfect sense.

We spent the next two hours sleeping while standing upright, and occasionally being violently jostled by the money-collector guy, as regular a fixture on Indian buses as the "roses for the lady?" guy at a bar. An additional similarity between the two is the intense urge to do something very painful to that person at regular intervals.

We arrived in Indore, which wasn't our final stop, then breathed a sigh of relief when we were told that it was "only" another 4 hours to Bhopal. "4 Hours? Hah! I do that on one foot!" Immediately realizing the karmic implications of such a statement, we sat ourselves down (on yet another shoddy bus) and kept our big yaps quiet.

We arrived in Bhopal and settled ourselves in. Our plan was to head off to a place called Sanchi the next day to see some ancient stupas, which are famous religious buddhist structures.

*warning, if you read the following you may learn something*

The shape of the stupa is interesting. If you look at the picture below, you can see that it looks like a dome with a balcony around it and a stick coming out from the top.

A stupa, stupid.

The way that the story goes, the shape came from when one of the Buddha's disciples asked him what shape they should make temples and religious structures in after he died so that they could properly worship him. In response, the Buddha took his cloak from his shoulders and placed it on the ground. On top of this, he put his begging bowl upside down. Finally, he took his fork (spoon/utensil etc.) and put that on top of the whole thing and told the disciple that this is what it should look like. It is at once a humble structure, yet one with very strong religious associations that make it all the more striking in that it is so human. This is in sharp contrast to say, grand cathedrals which are supposed to represent the immensity of the divine and the incomprehensibility of God etc.

*and now back to your regularly schedule schlock*

We were going to leave Bhopal after one day in order to reach the erotic sculptures and temples of Khajuaho in the North, however we ran into a slight snag: The largest Indian holiday of the year, during which everything shuts down for two days was occurring right then. This holiday is called Holi, perhaps you've heard of it? No? Okay then, let me tell you what I know about it.

1. It's loud
2. The night before, people were collecting buckets of water and colored dye's like the apocalypse was upon them and they were going to be textile manufacturers in the next life
3. Every single person is fair game. Especially white people

A victim of "Holi"

What I mean by "fair game" is that the purpose of this holiday, minus the religious part, is to thoroughly soak everyone on the street with your water/dye combinations which are advertised as being permanent. There is also a lot of Indian music relating to the holiday, which, if you would like to record an album, goes like this:

"(loud whiny noises for a while) Holi holi holi holi holi holi (mans voice) holi holi holi...holi (woman's voice) holi holi (mans voice) holi (both together, increased whininess) HOLI!"

It was quite an experience.

We finally caught the bus that we needed to Khajuraho. Another painful ride not worthy of retelling including, but not limited to, indigestion, whining children and a driver who clearly had been taught to drive by a group of elderly asian women...with cataracts and heavy feet.

Scultpure of Gandhi poking a little man with a sitck. Turns out, Gandhi coul dbe a real prick when he wanted to. This statue comemorates that little known fact.

Khajuraho contains some of the worlds most erotic, and therefore, most offensive sculptures on earth. (Ever notice how "erotic" "religion" and "offensive" are nearly always lumped together in conversation and discussion? Think that maybe there might be something to that? Like a weird religious obsession with sex? Hmm...I think that I may be the very first person to ever come up with that link.)

Out of respect for some of my younger readers, the close ups on the erotic sculpture are available by request and Money Order only.

Nice huh?

I swear to God we are really in this picture. I know that it looks like someone photoshopped us in, but we were really there. I mean it. Shut up!

Ultimately, the temples were nice and were almost worth the 500 rupees that were brutally extorted out of us by the conniving temple praetorians.

Yeah Yeah making contact wit the locals. They later ate him with spicy masala. By all accounts he was delicious.

Next: The worst bus ride ever, The holy (and wholly disgusting) City of Varanasi, and we reach a very good place.

Monday, March 20, 2006

India Part 2: Markets of Anjuna, Things that go "boom" in the night, and a definite endorsement of proper footwear

*Quick chronological note: The postings of my activities are about 2 weeks behind where I actually am. Thus, I am writing about my time in the South of India many weeks ago from Delhi at the end of my time here.*

March, 29th 19:42

DELHI, India

There are few things in life harder than leaving a place that you have come to think of as...if not home, then at least a place of great comfort. So it was with great reluctance that I packed up my bag, paid my bill and hoofed it down the beach with the rest of my companions, setting off in a slightly unstable van to the flea markets of Anjuna, about 2 hours north of Pallolem.

Carl. Great guitar player

Those who know me well, know that there are few things that I like less than shopping. I imagine that I would like acid dripped onto my face a bit less. Maybe being smashed in the head a few times by a board with a nail in it, a rusty nail...with acid on it would be something that I would enjoy at a lesser level than the selection and purchasing of goods. Nevertheless, it was to be a day of shopping, and as we were now 2 hours away from our base with the plan of continuing on, we were wearing our full complement of gear. I can assure you that walking around in 85% humidity, with a 26 pound pack on your back, in the blazing sun and being constantly harangued by aggressive Indian merchants is a less than pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Anjuna Market. Miserable.

Handbags! Stupendous!

YY (Yeah Yeah or Evan, my traveling partner) had wandered off for a while to see what there was to see. Apparently, there was much to see. He, in his meanderings, had come across a large group of Norwegian doctors-to-be with whom we had spent a few evenings on the mystical beaches of Southern Goa. These gentlemen now informed us of a "great party" that would be occuring that very night on the beach, at one of the bars along the beach. "Great" we thought, a plan now firmly in hand. We spent several hours walking around the area, getting acclimated to our new digs, then decided to wander over to where the party was supposed to be happening, maybe be there a bit early to see what the "vibe" was.

Waiting to party.

The "vibe" as it were, could fairly accurately be described as "nursing home." Not too many people around, those that are are talking far too loudly, lots of bland looking food and a general hopefullness in the air that someone would remember to come around and visit.

Needless to say, the "party" was a bust.

Thus, we found ourselves walking slowly down a brilliantly moonlit beach, discussing our options. Where the beach ended, we found ourselves clambering over and through a rocky road past a small amalgamation of stalls and huts, past an internet cafe, and finally to a bar that was charging a cover. An empty bar, complete with day-glow paint, thumping bass-heavy music, and hardly anyone inside. As our options were to stay and maybe scrounge up the ounce or two of fun that was to be had, or to admit defeat and go home, we boldly bargained for our entry and took up a position at the far corner of the truly hideous room...

...where we largely spent the rest of the night. YY did some dancing, I moped about and nearly fell asleep in a chair. So it came to pass that around 3AM, our spirits slightly sunk, we found ourselves loping along the beach towards our hotel. That was when Evan experienced a brush with, what could only be described as the super-human.

Often times in a comic book, movie etc., a person is granted extraordinary powers under an unusual circumstance (though that circumstance is, as often as not, atomic energy related). In other stories, a person is granted a flash of supernatural ability, allowed to graze lightly against a great cosmic force, temporarily absorbing a bit of the magic that it possesses, which endows them with a knowledge or power far beyond that of the average person. This is the only rational explanation for the fact that at 3 o'clock in the morning, on a beach with all ambient noises effectively canceled out by an unusually high surf, from 5 kilometers away, YY head the deep, primal sound of a back-beat. As I had not had a scrape with the eternal-afterworld, I blissfully carried on, teetering precariously on the edge of the envelope of sleep-walking. As such, I found myself walking (stumbling) along alone, only the full moon to keep me company as my impulsive friend had wandered off.

I finally caught up to him at the end of a darkened lane.

"I heard something" he said

"I didn't, I'm tired."

"I'm going to go find it."

And off he went. A deep sigh on my part was not enough to dissuade him. Following whatever internal pulse there was that had manifested externally to his ears only, we started walking. The clouds had cleared by this point, and the indigo drape thrown over the top of the world glowed all the more brightly for the glimmer of the moon. We walked along a raised road, open fields on either side. At its end, the road dove deeply into a stand of trees, passing away to the left.

"YY, there's nothing there, there is no sound lets...damn." I had heard it. Faint, elusive, yet definitively a sound. My pause only served to add to his resolve.

"I know that you heard that...come on."

My last resort, as usual, was shaky logic.

"Do you have any idea how far sound can carry at can damn far!"

His only reply was a jack-o-lantern grin and a shift of his weight to turn and walk away. I let go with the biggest sigh I had, to no avail. On we went. I couldn't imagine anything that we could possibly come across that could be good enough to justify all of this walking. It was late and I was tired and being crabby, but I wanted to sleep, not go on an adventure.

And that is one of the truly funny things about life, you don't get to choose your adventures. You can't package them and set start and end dates and confine them within a neat little framework. This is what group tours to interesting places try to do. They give you the thrill of adventure, without all the mess of having to stumble into it. Really, there's no adventure. An unplanned adventure is risky, it's dangerous, there's no predictable outcome and there's no guarantee (There is an irony here that my first few weeks in Africa were as a part of a packaged safari type thing, but I always tried, and occasionally succeeded, in reminding myself that you can't plan an adventure, they just happen to you.) An adventure, a real one, is something that sweeps you in, more often than not against your will. Things often happen to you, they happen quickly and you don't always get a chance to think through all of the consequences, you have to just react and hope for the best. In the case of this particular evening, it was very much against my will, but no quick thinking was needed. Instead, I spent most of my time trying to remember the increasingly serpentine route that we were taking over cow pastures, through woods, down roads that were getting more and more narrow and over rocky streams that I felt sure were largely used as open-air sewers.

And we were barefoot. I forgot to mention, or reiterate this earlier, so I do so now. All of this walking, all of the tramping through underbrush and fields and what-have-you was done without the benefit of footwear. This, all things considered, was fairly painful.

After spotting lights far off in the distance, I resigned myself to finishing the journey, mostly because the number of turns required to walk back, to say nothing of the distance, was too epic to even consider.

At long last, we reached a parking lot, set deep into the woods. A completely full parking lot. At 4AM. The bass beat that we had been hearing ever louder over the past hour finally revealed its source as an enormous, not-quite-believable party (also known as a rave) in the middle of nowhere's-ville. The scene was like something out of a Hollywood movie. A Hollywood movie that you watch and think "well that certainly looks like fun, but when does that ever really happen?" And then you go home and don't give it much more thought.

Let me assure you, even if it was the only party of its kind that ever happened, or ever will (which it wasn't), this was exactly that kind of scenario. It took me a while to reel my jaw back up.

In a sunken area of stone steps, hundreds of long haired, baggily clothed people sat around on intricately designed rugs, being served steaming hot cups of something from huge pitchers. The elderly Indian women who were serving the "tea" were at the same time tending enormous hookahs, out of which those not sipping tea were taking lazy puffs and gently exhaling the smoke.

The main event was a raised dirt area, supporting roughly a thousand people, all of whom were gyrating, stomping, singing and grooving to the insistent rhythms emanating from the speakers hung high overhead. A DJ booth, 30 feet in the air, revealed a frenetic man, head cupped to earphones, a fist in the air pumping along with the beat. The lights were clearly a professional set up, with ice-blue strobes winking in and out, a green laser net descending and then re-ascending over the crazed heads of the dancers, and violent looking red pulses flasing at an irregular pace.

So we danced...well, YY in his infinite energy danced and I sort of swiveled around a bit and shook my head.

As the sun rose over the tree tops, some of the revelers took a moment out of their dancing to lay down and promptly pass out. Other, hardier souls sat down to collect their groove, then, as the enormous orange orb completed it's emergence from the shelf of the world, they were right back to it, usually after stopping at the bar which was still doing a steady business right up until 8am when we left.

It should be noted that as we were leaving, people were arriving.

We had managed to find the Norwegians (our friends from the beach long ago) and it was with them that we exhaustedly bartered for a very small van to take 8 of us back to our lodging. Collapsing on our respective beds, there was a moment or two when we both were aware of the fact that something not quite real seemed to have passed us by in the night.



"You win. That was fun. And you will never know how unbelievably pissed off I was at you for about an hour there."

"Yeah yeah, I know."


Next: I attempt to summarize far too much travel in far too short a posting

India: Let the insanity begin

March 20th, 15:58


"The time has come" Ganesha said, "To talk of many things, of shoes and ships and curry powder, of horrific traffic and smoke rings, and why the sea is perfectly calm, and the multitude of nose rings..."

So Lewis Carroll I am not, however the time is now at hand to write about what, exactly I have been doing in this strange, wonderful place that I have been in for some time.

Boring as it may be, I think that I will start at the beginning.

I flew from Johannesburg to Dubai, and then from Dubai to Mumbai. If anyone should ever ask me for an airline recommendation, should the opportunity arise to actually choose which airline you will be flying, then I would without hesitation, and with a certain sense of haughty indifference reply "Why, Emirates Air, of course." Yes, Emirates Air. During my 8 hour flight, I watched 4 feature length movies, two of which are still in theaters, 2 episodes of the Simpsons and I would have finished 3 episodes of "Scrubs" however the inconvenience of the plane landing and me being bodily forced out of the craft cut that short.

The service and attention to detail on this flight far surpassed anything that I had ever even thought possible on an airplane, including making you feel like you are camping outside as you drift off to sleep...

The big dipper, right above me on the plane

Yes, thats right; a semi-accurate starmap on the ceiling of the plane that they turn on when it's sleepy time, made out of LED lights and fairy dust. Incredible

Upon arriving in Mumbai, I immediately began to follow the instructions of Yeah Yeah (born: Evan St. Clair, my former roommate, erstwhile world traveler and a friend who I have not laid eyes upon in nearly 2 years. Hereafter, he will be referred to as "YY"). Of course, by doing this, I was immediately confused. He had recommended that I take the train down from Mumbai to the state of Goa, then a bus from the main city in Goa to a beach where we would be "chillin'" for the next week. The train ride would have taken 16 hours. The bus rides (as I would later find out) took roughly 8.

Mercifully, as it was my first time in this strange land, I elected to fly into Goa, then take the 8 hours worth of public busing that was to become our main mode of transport. My first experience with driving in India involved the relatively simple, short, and straightforward drive from Mumbai international to the domestic terminal. During this time, I was absolutely certain, on no less than 10 occasions in 15 minutes that I was going to die. This was not "oh no, something bad is going to happen," no, this was more along the lines of tightly gripping my seat in mute acceptance of the inevitable, and trying to position my body in such a way that when the time came, it would be over as quickly as possible. It seemed to me that going headfirst through the windshield might do the job humanely. Indians drive as if all of their houses were on fire simultaneously, and in those houses were their pregnant wives, all of whom were going into labor that very minute, while at the same time there was a ticking bomb under their seat whereby if they drove less than 50mph at any time their car, auto-rickshaw, bus or bicycle would explode.

The previous description is not an exaggeration; it is a gross, horrific understatement.

There are no lanes, and often times, no particular direction of traffic. The rule seems to be that if you can get into a space, then you will.

Actually, scratch that, there is one, iron-clad and all-encompassing rule of driving in India: The bigger car gets right of way. Thats it. If you are on a bicycle, you yield, however briefly, to the three-wheeled hell-borne hybrid that is the auto-rickshaw (three wheels, motorcycle controls, rickety), if you are in an auto-rickshaw, you yield to cars, cars yield to buses, buses occasionally yield to trucks. That's the pecking order and woe be to those who fail to adhere to it.

For an even more metaphor laden description of driving in India, check out YY's thoughts on the matter and his initial impressions of it on his own excellent (if infrequently updated) website here.

I arrived in Goa and proceeded to take 3 separate buses, all boarding from bus stations that seemed only slightly less chaotic than a battlefield hospital, and with far more sick and injured people about. I have never seen so many crippled, infected and generally unhealthy looking people in one place ever. And Goa is generally considered to be one of the wealthier and better off areas of India. Still not deterred, I finally spotted "Cafe Del Mar", the seaside restaurant at which I was supposed to find YY, by looking past the 3 people on the 2 person bench next to me, around a very large woman and her 2 children, over the 5 or so boxes of god-knows-what-but-smelled-like-drowned-dog that someone had brought on to the bus, and finally, by using my x-ray vision to see through the 3 men literally hanging out the door of the bus. I yelled "hey hey hey" which seems to be the signal for the driver to slow down briefly, grabbed my pack and hopped off the bus, running a few steps forward with the momentum. This is an integral technique to bus-riding in India, as the concept of the "full-stop" is practically unheard of. Instead, a driver will grudgingly pull two inches over to the side of the road, apply, ever so gently, his foot to what in the distant past must have been a brake of some kind, and you are expected to get your ass off as fast as possible so he can resume scattering cows and children in his wake.

Finally, a long overdue reunion

Two years and nothings changed

I was at a beach called Pallolem (the place where the last entry is listed as being written) and I can say without any sense of irony or hyperbole, that this was without exception the best beach in the history of all beaches, on this world or any other, as described in any work of fiction or recounted in any work of fact, ever dreamed in the imagination of a poor child or experienced by the richest and most connected of men, no beach has ever, will ever, or could ever be better than this beach. Really.

Okay, so I liked this beach a lot.

Maybe it was the fact that I had been on the road for the past 2 weeks, staying only one night in each place and hardly getting a chance to catch my breath, let alone spend hours doing nothing. Maybe it was the 3 dollar a night thatched roof hut that I had all to myself, complete with balcony, king sized bed, fan and mosquito net. Maybe it was that I woke up every day around noon, ate an enormous stack of chocolate banana pancakes, then read a book for an hour until I could wander down the beach for lunch. Maybe it was that we would get indignant when our beer cost more than a dollar. Maybe all of that, and maybe even more.

Mostly, what was good about my time in Pallolem was that I was with good people, had several good books, and there were not many others about. YY had brought a number of friends with him (Robyn, Bjorn, Carl, Harriet) and together we spent our time eating masala and thali (and pizza), drinking enormous freezing cold Kingfisher beers, and generally being about as astonishingly lazy as humans can get. This is my last indulgence to make someone jealous about the beach, however I simply must give my itinerary for my third day in Pallolem

12PM Wake up
12:01 Fall back asleep
1:15 Mosey out to restaurant area to find everyone already eating banana pancakes
1:45 Eat banana pancakes
2:15 Kick soccer ball
2:17 Take nap
3:32 Walk 1.5km down beach to restaurant that has sunken middle section with pillows, feel exhausted
4:00 Eat lunch
4:30 Everyone falls asleep on the cushions in the restaurant
7:45 Wake up, order beer
7:52 Fall back asleep
8:15 Wake everyone up, order dinner
9:10 Find drum, play drum
Midnight: Trudge back to hut, fall asleep

That my friends, is a good day. (hmmm, whats the deal with all these locusts and boils, oh right...sloth, sorry God).

We stayed in Pallolem for another 4 days, largely trying to equal the utter tranquility of our one day of perfect laziness. Though we never quite achieved that, we certainly reached points that anyone observing us would have rightly described as "slothful."

What fun is a sin if you can't repeat it a few times...?

Next: Norm reluctantly goes shopping, YY's super hearing, and food poisoning is not all it's cracked up to be.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Fear and Loathing in the Rainbow Nation: A savage journey up the coast of South Africa

Hunter S. Thompson set out in his first published novel to examine the death of the American dream via a drug fueled road trip to cover a motorcycle convention in Las Vegas. The rest is journalism history.

In retrospect, I find that my trip up the Southern Coast of South Africa from Cape Town to Durban was, rather than an examination of the death of a dream, the realization of a part of a dream that I never knew that I had. Namely, the dream of truly independent, yet constant travel. This theme will be elaborated on in the future, but it is a good starting point.
Also, other than beer, no drugs were involved.

Day 2

We left Mossel Bay early and headed up to an area called "the wilderness." It should be noted that in nearly every coastal town in Southern Africa, one can engage in nearly any outdoor activity ever dreamed up by man. Want to go abseiling (rappelling) down a cliff then "kloof" (cliff jump) off of it? Done. Want to go sky diving then take a 3 hour trek into a forest to see a waterfall? We have three trips leaving throughout the day. There is basically never a shortage of amazing things to do. Being the crazy, out of this world adventurers that we are, we chose to go kayaking up a river to a waterfall. Yaaaaaaaaaaawwwn...Okay, so it lacks the adrenaline thrills of hurling yourself into a vast blue nothingness, but it was a nice day and I love kayaking.

See, I love this!

After about an hour and a half of kayaking up a very peaceful river, we hit a snag. Specifically, the bottom of the river seemed to stop, forming a sort of "shore" area where we had to get out. I was nonplussed as I wanted to kayak more and waved my paddle about in a very bird-like expression of frustration. Upon being informed that our next plan of action was an hour long hike to a waterfall, I shut my beak and started walking.

The path to follow led over and around a number of, shall we say "obstacles" that we found some unique ways to overcome.

The theme of the day was "Norm should try this first"

We, being the smart budget travelers that we were, had brought along a lunch. Then we spent about 3 hours climbing over the rocks, falls and various other craggy nonsense that prevailed all over the area.

Far too cool for school

I was feeling adventurous, and stupid. 50 foot drop into rocky water below.

All the cool kids stand on logs.

That night, it was onto a place called Wildside, which, in addition to being a very interesting place to hang out, boasted a patio that was actually the beach, and a surf culture that I was to find out was very much the norm (excuse the self-referential material there) for the rest of the trip. Also, after being "accidentally" smacked in the head with a pool cue by none other than the owner herself, I was informed that my tab was "on the house." I immediately proceeded to buy up all of the candy bars behind the bar and retired to my room to gobble down my delicious horde.

Bathroom wall at Wildside

Okay, it didn't quite happen like that. I took about 8 candy bars and ate them over 2 days. I left a few there. And I didn't gobble, I savored.

Day 3

Most people drive over tall bridges and marvel at their construction, at how magnificent are the gorges and trees and fauna that occur under them and then return their gaze to the road or a book etc. Menno does not do this. When Menno passes over a high bridge, his first thought is "I wonder if I can jump off of that." In his life, the answer has more often been yes than no.

So we found ourselves on this third of travel days driving to an establishment that promised the "highest bungee jump on earth." As Menno has jumped at the third highest, second highest, and the place where the first insane Kiwi (New Zealander) strapped some cables together and told his friends that they could have his VHS collection if he didn't come back, this was something like a pilgrimage for him. So after walking around the bridge in a circle three times and sacrificing a goat, he hooked up his cable and off he went.

See the tiiiiiiiiiny speck there falling? That's Menno

I now regret not following him, however if regrets were M&M's then I would have too many of them and I...ummm... would start mixing metaphors ...hmmm...moving on

Day 4

Oh so much driving. I had heard before arriving that South Africa has the most dangerous roads on Earth, and up until this point, we had had no reason to doubt that, though nothing had really proven it either. This all changed on Day 4. About 3 hours into our drive, we came upon a huge line of cars on the N2 (main Southern highway). After several minutes of stop/start driving, much shouting and cursing, we were informed that there was a large accident ahead, and that noone would be allowed through. For at least 8 hours.


As is turns out, this was an accident involving an undetermined number of cars, and at least 12 people dead. We had been hurtling along, merrily joking about the close calls that we routinely had and never really thinking much about how truly bad even a minor accident could become here. In South Africa, people use the lane dividers, shoulders and painted lines more as gentle suggestions as opposed to say, laws.

It set a somber mood for the next little bit of adventure we had to undergo. With the urging of the three cars in front of us (which all, incidentally, were SUV's) we decided to follow them on a route that would detour around the accident. This would have been no problem if we were in an SUV. Or maybe if we had been in a car with power steering, or maybe one where you could keep the windows up without suffocating so that the dust swirling outside and obscuring the 10 feet in front of you didn't choke you. Maybe all of that...but then again...not. So I found myself driving our little tank of a car through off-road trails, around narrow passes, and all the time trying to dodge the semi-trailer trucks that were coming from the other side and had been diverted the same route albeit going the other way. Driving in a field is not so hard after the third or fourth time.

The destination of our journey this day as a place several hundred kilometers inland from the coast known as "Hogsback." It took exactly one sentence to convince me to go:

Dave: It's the place where J.R.R. Tolkien got his inspiration for the...Lord..of..Norm?

Norm: (already in the car, honking the horn) Lets go, lets go, lets go!!! Hobbits!

So we were on our way there, and then we got there.

(Editor's note: many things happened on the drive there including nearly hitting a cows...about 6 times, dangerous mountain driving etc., however Norman is of the mind that he has already described enough of the actual driving that a further description would bore you, gentle reader. Therefore, to simulate the experience of getting to Hogsback, please do the following; 1. make that sound with your mouth that you make when you're pretending that you're shifting gears a lot in a car and 2. scream, gasp and bug out your eyes inbetween making the shifting-gears noise. That pretty much covers it.)

So we arrive in Hogsback and you can immediately see how Tolkien was inspired to create Middle Earth, particularly the areas where the Hobbits live (Hobbiton etc.). It is as green and lush as any place you can imagine, there are narrow winding footpaths, that lead to a series of waterfalls, the most spectacular being the Madonna and Child falls.

Madonna and Child Falls

There are tiny inn's and a backpackers hostel called "away with the fairies." It is a quaint, quiet place that an imaginative mind could easily use as fertile soil to create a world like ours, but with its own people and religions and customs.

And Orcs. Lots of Orcs. Dirty, filthy Orcs.

By the by, the Hogsbacks got their name by being a mountain range that looks like the back of a Hog. Just like Table Mountain, some people get really creative when they name topography.

We spent the night at a place called "Buccaneers" which was excellent, and about which I have nothing remotely interesting to say. Oh, except that dinner was good, they had candles and stuff.

Days 5 & 6

Coffee Bay is about as out-of-the-way as a place can get. It has a well deserved reputation as being a great "chill spot" and also is well known for its surfing. In an alarming and potentially life altering decision, we elected to stay not just our customary one night, but a whopping two nights at the "Coffee Shack." This decision was based on our having been on the move for 5 straight days, coupled with my need to get my clothes dry (I seriously doubt if they even have a word for "dryer" in Afrikaans other than "Sunshine") and Dave's need to break in his new surfboard.

On the second day there, Menno and I went on a guided hike out to a place called "hole in the wall". Our guide, though seemingly knowledgable about everything under the sun (literally) as we walked, neglected to ever tell us anything about what we were hiking to see. Therefore, I have a lovely picture for you and nothing else to go with it.

Hole in the Wall: The African Creative Naming Commission at work again

The rest of the views were wonderful as well.

Cow nude beach

I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge the women that we met/saw in Africa, and for now I'll just speak about those in Coffee Bay. In short, they are incredible. As the picture below shows, they can carry a bucket full of mussels up a nearly sheer cliff (one which I, with the aid of hiking boots, a hat, water, a lightweight shirt and shorts and sunglasses) on their heads, barefoot, and several of whom had babies slung around behind them. They would then walk approximately 3km to their home where they would finish their washing, and begin the trek to get water to boil the mussels in. Everywhere that we went I got big smiles and deferential treatment, which I always tried to return, from the women that I met. When I was handwashing my clothes, two of the women at the Coffee Shack offered to help me, a service which they normally charge for (I politely declined). When we got lost, it was invariably the women who would give us honest directions. This is not meant to denigrate the many men we met who were helpful, cheerful and equally impressive in any number of areas, however the amount of strength and at the same time, pitifully low social standing of the women I felt demands some recognition.

My estimation: each basket weighed between 20-28 pounds

Of course, the condition and standing of women in Africa has been so much more competently covered by literally hundreds of other authors that I feel almost guilty writing such a bland, uninformed statement like the one above. Nonetheless, while actually present as a witness, it is something which can not fail to make an impression on anyone (in my opinion).

Day 7

We left Coffee Bay and made our way to Port St. Johns. The hostel, Jungle Monkey was quiet, until I found a drum set, the first one that I had seen since I left home. I spent the entire time that I was there jamming with the resident chef, a guy named Steve and we put on an impromptu performance for all 5 guests of the hostel until the bartender turned the lights off on me...

Which seems a fitting end to the tale of my road trip with Dave and Menno in South Africa. I made it to Durban the next day, onto a bus to Jo'burg, then onto a flight and on to India, which will be the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

In India, but writing about Africa...crazy!

(NOTE: I have updated the previous two posts with PICTURES (!) and some new stories and edits, check them out, they're super!)

March 7, 20:15


An update! With pictures and text! That’s properly formatted! A miracle!

SO…as the lead-in states, I have successfully arrived in India, and am currently experiencing the most relaxed time of my life in the South-western state of Goa, at a small (read: tiny) town of Palolem, about an hour South of Margao, and if that doesn’t help you place it…well, me either really.

First things first, I haven’t updated since I left Cape town and any number of shenanigans, hootenannies and tomfoolery has since ensued...

Such as that I had grown a full beard. I was trying to look wise here. I'm not sure if it worked

...said mischief starting within 3 hours of my arrival as the power to the entire city went out. Since I had arrived at 9pm on a Saturday, the screaming, horn honking, running-out-on-bar-tabs and general chaos were truly something to behold. I had spent most of my evening at a little joint called “Mama Africa’s” which boasted, among insanely expensive beers, a live 4 piece band, 3 pieces of which consisted of marimbas. It was an excellent start to my time in South Africa.

The power blew at about midnight, so I quickly ran up to the roof of my hostel and watched as it intermittently came back on, to loud screaming from the bar patrons, then went back out, to further screaming, then came back on then went off (screaming etc. ad infinitum).

What with the rash of movies out right now whose main focus is backpackers being hacked to death in hostels, it was slightly unnerving, to say the least, to be wandering down dark corridors in a new city at 2am, with only the light from my 5 dollar Target-bought watch to guide me.

Still, fun was had.

Fun in Cape Town!

Much of my time in Cape Town was spent finding out interesting solutions to the lack of electricity. As the power went out for many hours every day, with absolutely no way to predict it, it was important to 1. eat frequently, as you weren’t sure when you would be able to grocery shop, go to a restaurant etc again 2. get money, as the ATM’s, apparently, need electricity and 3. get any necessary travel planning done as fast as possible, as most of such traveling involves computers and internet, which, I have again been informed, use electricity.

I spent the following day (Sunday) with a friend who I met on the plane down from London several weeks before named Dunya who is a superb person and a very good driver, as well as knowing all of the spots which could be considered “hot” in greater Cape Town. We hit a number of beaches, had some delicious ice cream and went for “sundowners” (drinking as the sun sets roughly 10 feet away from you). Unfortunately, as Dunya is currently attending “varsity” (or “college” as some of us call it) we weren’t able to hang out further.

Thanks again Dunya!

I did some other stuff not really worth mentioning, then climbed Table Mountain. This is a big moutain. Flat on top. Guess how it got it’s name?

The climb up was challenging,

This is more than halfway up

but it was the coming down that nearly killed me. Almost literally, as apparently it is unwise to race the mountain guides down a nearly vertical rocky trail composed largely of loose earth, gravel and pointy things. For the record, I won the race up, and the group of guides-in-training absolutely schooled me on the way down. I will be returning for a rematch soon…

Fortunately, the effort was worth it.

Full view of the Lion, Lions head on the left, Lions Rump on the right.

Lions Head

The rock pile that you climb to get to the very top

The very top!

Since I can’t think of a better way to do this, what follows is a day-to-day running diary of my 8 days on the road in the company of two hearty souls, Menno the Extreme of Holland and Dave the Forgetful of Britain.
(after 2 hours of writing, this is actually Day 1 and some background on the players, to be followed up by the next 7 days.)

Day 1

Well, more like the lead up to Day 1, and then Day 1. I met Menno at the hostel. He is from Holland (isn’t that veeeird?), and after South Africa, his plan is to get a job on a boat to South America so that he doesn’t have to pay to fly there. Clearly this was a person who I could travel with. Menno had met Dave at a different hostel in the city, and had shared a bit of a difficult experience, as they were both unceremoniously thrown out of that hostel due to space limitations. The story remains suspect to this day, but whatever. Dave the Forgetful is a 21 year old brit who came to South Africa for a few months and has now been there for over a year, mostly surfing. The reason that he needed to travel with us was so that he could get to Mozambique to renew his visa to stay…and presumably surf some more.

After a day or two of running around getting our car sorted, a surf rack for the car, insurance and money we were ready to go.

(L to R) Dave and Menno, setting out. Which means that I was crammed into the backseat...bastards

Our first stop was Cape Agulhas, which is the southern-most point of Africa. Some people are mis-led to believe that Cape of Good Hope, or even Cape Point are the southern-most points, and these people are idiots.


One look at a map tells you otherwise, and maps are plentiful. So we left early on Tuesday morning and made it to the cape early as well. Except that we actually didn’t, because the car we had reserved was given away, and we had to scramble and then I wanted lunch so we actually left at about 2pm. But we left!The drive to the Cape was handled by Menno who proved himself to be the most consistent driver of the three of us (followed by me, followed by anyone else in the history of driving, including little old women from Asian countries, followed, at a great distance, by Dave).

(introspective diversion)

Cape Agulhas, the bottom of the world

There is something incredibly powerful about being in a place and knowing that everything in the world, quite literally, is behind you. Watching the sun drop over the ocean, my back was to all of Africa. The wars, poverty, AIDS, dictators, corrupt governments, genocide, draught, famine, all of that was behind me. Also behind me was the cradle of human existence, tens of thousands of years of culture, art, music, language and dance. Being in front, or behind or below all that humanity has struggled for and with and achieved and lost and conquered and lost again was an overwhelming feeling and it took me quite a while to budge myself from my perch amongst the stones. When I did finally turn around, the small hill and lighthouse that I faced seemed to be an entirely inappropriate prologue to all that came after it, like trying to grasp the entirety of religion by being given the first word each of the Torah, Koran and Bible. I felt as if I was at the apex of some enormous pendulum, having now swung out as wide as it can go, it was time to begin the slow swing back towards the opposite extreme, whatever that may be. Still, for those few moments, poised motionless and hanging in silence and expectation for the downward arc to begin, I felt completely untouchable.

And then we took silly pictures…

We've known each other less than a day here. Death-defying driving brings people together

We pressed on, and I got my first taste of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

Turns out I’m not too bad. Even though the three of us plus our packs weighed roughly as much as the car, which had no power steering, African air conditioning (roll down the widow; drive), no radio, weak headlights and tires thin enough to drive on rope, and I had to use the clutch and stick shift backwards, I managed to log a few hours on deserted back roads the very first day.

Our noble steed: 1.3L VW Gulf Chico. Every bit as manly as the name implies

Driving on the wrong side of the car...I'm skeptical about this...

Dave, as it turns out, had driven the route that we planned to take twice before, and he proved to be an excellent guide, knowing the best places to stay, best places to party and best places to surf. I believe that by the end he was something like 12 for 12 on suggestions, which he really needed to make up for the fact that he left something in every single place that we stayed, which necessitated a number of return trips after leaving a place, as well as nearly killing all of us any number of times in the car.

As such, our first stop was in a place called Mossel Bay. We stayed here:

(picture soon)

Yes, it is a train car. Apart from the novelty of it being a train car, there was absolutely nothing worth mentioning about this place. Still, it was kind of cool. Except when I woke up the following morning confused about where I was, and, since I’m a top bunk kind of guy, soundly smacked my head on the roof-rack.

Next: Days 2-8, Dave loses things, Menno jumps off a very tall bridge, and I learn all about surfing...without actually doing any.