Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Days 150-153: Kota Kinabalu

The following few days were filled with time on the computer working mainly on wedding planning. A lot of hours were spent in our hotel room, eyes trained on our respective devices. But we managed to get out and wander the city a couple of times a day, and felt very comfortable there. KK is reasonably 'Western' so Starbucks and two delicious homecooked meals at a darling Hungarian restaurant made us feel less like tourists. Our first night in town we enjoyed a nice dinner at the Harbourfront with Adrian and Erin who we'd come back with from Kudat. Then our third night, we met a couple at a restaurant who we started talking with, then invited to join us for dinner, from England and Ireland. It was a nice change to be so social after some isolating weeks in India.

Craig wandered the market and picked up a few decorations to make Christmas Day feel more special. Erin splurged on a luxuriously long massage by a talented Malay girl who apologetically told her that she was too stiff to be worked on. A jar of Tiger Balm helped remedy the situation, and Erin's hoping to visit her on our return. We each chuckled at the signs by the door stating that "No Immoral Activity" was allowed in the joint, and that you're not to make sounds when you're having your treatment because it disturbs other clients.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Days 144-149: The Tip of Borneo

The mix-up with our Indian visas gave us an extra week in Borneo. Since we had plans to meet up with Diane on Christmas Eve, and were exhausted from our fast pace, we chose to book in to a relaxing beach location for six nights. We had planned to take the bus from downtown, but were offered a good price from the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport, so we chose to take advantage of the quicker transport. The driver picked up his two daughters to accompany us, who were on holiday from school, and we shared laughs, and taught each other some phrases. It was adorable how the eldest daughter had decided she wanted to go to University in London...all because of One Direction!

Kudat had lovely sand beaches with crystal clear water. It was absolutely perfect for swimming the first few days - big waves for body surfing, and a sandy beach to lie on. During the second half of our time there, the waves seemed to grow and the pull out to sea got strong enough that we avoided the water.

Our accommodation excelled at being eco-friendly. There were composting toilets, free filtered water to cut down on plastic bottles, solar heated showers, and an owner in-tune with the needs of the community. He is doing amazing things to support the Rungus people native to the area, as well, and we got a tour of the school that is being worked on by World Challenge groups that come through and stay at his place.

The downside was the distance the accommodation was to the beach. Howard shuttled us back and forth, but it was less relaxing than being able to walk in and out of the water at our own leisure. There was also very limited internet, so we didn't get as much done as hoped on future trip plans, blog entries, and wedding decisions.

But the place did foster a lot of sociability. We met wonderful people to share some meals with, and had a fun afternoon of games that lasted late into the evening, and deep into our pockets by the amount of pints we shared.

Highlights of our time there include:
- walking up to the true Tip of Borneo and seeing the Philippines across the Sulu Sea
- getting the ball rolling on a huge beach bonfire at sunset
- bike riding up and down the difficult hills to find a completely secluded  beach
- showering with the moon rising and the stars above
- riding the waves throughout the day but also during one of the most beautiful sunsets either of us had ever seen!

We were serenaded one night at dinner
by local kids singing Christmas carols.

Day 143: Speeding Through Singapore

We easily checked out and arrived at the airport the next morning. Our flight to Singapore was comfortable as the plane was near-empty and we had a free seat in between us. We watched movies and the trip went by quickly.

We knew our time in Singapore was extremely limited and at the top of the itinerary was the much-recommended Orchid Garden at the Botanical Gardens. It boasted raving reviews, but the catch was that the last ticket was sold at 6 pm and the place closed at 7 pm. We'd checked train schedules ahead of time, and thought we might be able to do it, but even after racing off the plane and got through customs, time looked tight (we were really glad that we didn't have to collect our checked baggage). So we lined up for a taxi instead, and even still, arrived at the gate at 5:45. There was no doubt that it was worth it.

After all of the reviews, we knew it would be gorgeous. What we didn't expect was that an orchid garden could actually be MIND BLOWING. These things were CRAZY! We loved the VIP garden in the back where new orchid species were named after visiting dignitaries. We tried playing a game where we'd each get to pick two orchids to use at our wedding, if we were going to have orchids, but it quickly became impossible. We'll now overwhelm you with photos and still feel like we haven't shown enough:


After we were kicked out, we walked back through the lush botanical gardens and had dinner overlooking their fountains at their elegant snack bar restaurant. We were informed that the water in Singapore is drinkable, and it was hard to not feel the shock of switching so drastically between that and India. They value considerateness in Singapore (they have signs in the bathrooms teaching you to use the hand dryer rather than shake your hands dry because someone else might slip on the wet floor), and with the number of ex-pats out jogging, you might have been in Central Park if it weren't for the humidity, or for the fact that you get severely punished for chewing gum, spitting, or even drinking water on the train.

It was a little late to do more sight-seeing, but we didn't want to quite throw in the towel. So we headed to Orchard Road to see the big Christmas displays, even though most of the fancy high-end stores were closed.

Then we headed across town to our slightly dodgier dorm-room hostel for the night.

Day 143: Impressions of India

India wasn't nearly as difficult to travel in than others led us to believe, likely due to the poverty we'd already been experiencing. The main difference was that it stood out more. In Madagascar, for example, everyone was poor, so it was less noticeable, if that makes sense. In India, you can see the extreme distribution of wealth and it's enhanced by the setting. Great forts and palaces create a medieval feeling where kings and queens sit looking down at their village, including its peasants. The poor aren't hidden down alleyways and in ghettos like so many Western cities.

The number of children begging was certainly difficult to see, but again, not unusual. It was a sad sight that we've seen in each country we've visited (except Reunion and Mauritius). We've struggled to decide on an area to support as there are so many that are valuable. But for India, we've decided to focus our efforts on improving the rights of women. With rape,  gender selection, and girls dying at three times the rate of boys from malnutrition, it's clear that the women in India need some support.

Overall, our experience in India was positive with lots of delicious food, easy bus rides, and marvellous architecture. Whether or not you believe in Hinduism, there is no denying the beauty in their religious celebrations and buildings. And watching women walk through the streets in their saris is just mystical.

Leg Three showed us culture, history, and a view into the lives of one sixth of the world's population. We're leaving feeling like there are many corners of Nepal and India left to explore. We had high hopes to create a video to some great Hindu music but have settled on another one of our favourites.

Leg 3 Video

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Days 142: Ballin' in Slumbai

We learned that our only way to Mumbai was on a night bus, so we gained an extra day in Ahmedabad mainly to relax in our hotel room since we'd exhausted Ahmedabad's tourist sites the day before. Our only outlet was hooked up to the tv, so we watched movies on HBO and rushed to plug in devices on the well-timed commercial breaks so they would be full for our long ride ahead. If you get a chance to stay with Hotel Good Night, it'll be worth every penny  because they have a 24 hour check-in/check-out policy, so since we'd arrived in the evening two days prior, we didn't have to check out until 8pm (with no added charge!).

The sleeper bus turned out to be fairly comfortable, a little too short to fit us perfectly, but we managed. After a rocky start with a driver, who felt to be a teenager behind wheels for the first time, accelerating and stopping with such force we were both turning green, we hit the open highway and let the bouncing vibrations lull us into a restful state. The ten hours passed quickly and we arrived in Mumbai as the sun was rising behind a wall of polluted haze.

We should mention that when we discovered that we could only take a night bus and would be arriving in the morning, we called the hotel we had booked in Mumbai (and paid a deposit fee for), to inform them we'd only be staying one night instead of two. They replied that we would have to pay for both nights in full. So WE replied that in that case, we would cancel our entire reservation with them, allowing them to keep the 10% deposit for two nights which would be less money lost overall. So, we found a different hotel in Mumbai and booked for one night through Agoda.

So, back to us arriving to Mumbai. Getting to our prepaid hotel was easy, but when we walked in with booking reference in hand, they informed us that they did not have any vacancies and they had not confirmed this reservation with Agoda. A large argument ensued, the hotel manager was called, and we left completely enraged that they would not honour the room that we had ALREADY PAID FOR!

Needing some time to think and cool down, we decided to go to one of the fancy hotels in the area for air conditioning and a nice breakfast, where we could figure out our next plan. The auto driver (who had witnessed, and for whatever reason participated in our argument with the hotel manager) felt that we should go to a different hotel than the one we asked for, and took us on his merry way. This escalated to us threatening to jump out of the rickshaw when he wouldn't stop and let us out. Finally, completely at our wits end, we arrived (with a different auto) to the Suba International, and to their credit, the hotel receptionist didn't bat an eye at our sorry state. At the end of breakfast, the waiter asked where we were staying, looked at Erin's quivering eyes as she replied that we had already paid for two different hotel rooms for that night but still had nowhere to stay, and went to talk with the hotel manager.

After a few minutes of negotiations, we were offered the only room they had left, the Executive Suite (of course, there were no basic or deluxe rooms available, only suites...), at a severely discounted rate. Yes, that rate was still well above our budget, but we splurged, and immediately had a nap on what must be the most comfortable bed in the entire world.

Also of note: you control the lights, tv, air conditioner, you name it, with an iPod Touch!!! We can even monitor who's outside our door from the built-in camera.

We justified this splurge by telling ourselves we were experiencing the true extremes of Mumbai life: ballin' like Bollywood stars, then shuffling around the slums, as the only thing on our Mumbai itinerary was a 'Reality Tour' of Dharavi.

After lots of back and forth on the idea, we finally decided to see for ourselves the truth behind 'Slumbai.' From watching Slumdog Millionaire, and reading Behind the Beautiful Forever, we had a taste of what the media portrayed. Erin felt that if she ever wanted to talk about the slums in her classroom, she should have had the first-hand experience of visiting them, and Reality Tours was recommended by a friend (and Lonely Planet). So we signed up, met with our guide, Arish, and four other travellers, and were off!

Reality Tours has been working in Dharavi for eight years establishing relationships with community members and creating an NGO called Reality Gives to support education, empower women, and provide for the elderly. Their aim is to dismantle negative stereotypes about slums.  80% of their profits go back to Dharavi, and it was honestly one of the most pleasant experiences we've had walking around India. People were friendly, but mostly just continued about their daily work, and we were pleased (and relieved) that we didn't feel like we were watching or exploiting them. The streets were fairly clean, the businesses prosperous, and the people looked happy.

We learned that 'slum' in India means housing set up on government-owned land. The Dharavi area is 1.75 km2 and has a population of over 1 million! There are a few public toilet buildings, at a rate of 1200 citizens for three male and three female stalls. This slum is called the 'Five Star Slum' because it's the only one in Mumbai that has a separate residential and commercial area. Most houses also have plumbing right to their houses, which the government supplies them with water for three hours a day. In the commercial area, the top jobs are leathering, plastics and aluminium recycling, and pastries/poppadums production. Dharavi has an annual turnover of over $665 million US, with many citizens now holding white-collar jobs, but still living in the area they grew up and call home. There is a 95% literacy rate amongst school-age children and crime rates are extremely low. The experience was enlightening and positive. No photographs are allowed on the tour, but we've been given  a link to view some from Reality tours, so our photos are courtesy of them.

We rounded out the day back in our Bollywood suite ordering room service and watching movies on demand. Not the Mumbai experience we were expecting, but an example of taking the bad with the good all the same.

Day 140-141: Ahmedabad

Amazing detail in a Stepwell!

Electing to have another relaxing morning in Udaipur, we caught the afternoon bus to Amdavad (Ahmedabad) getting in just as the sun set. We found our hotel down an alley flanked by shady warehouses half full of non-descript boxes with half written signs directing you up narrow dark stairways. Clearly hesitant about what our hotel would be like, we were surprised to walk up the steps to something sleek and modern, with decorating ideas we may even take away  from their lobby. The room was equally modern and we happily wiled away another night with some bad movies and delicious food thanks to the restaurant downstairs.

In the morning, we set out trying to avoid the heat to see one of the best examples of a Gujarati stepwell. Craig had practised the name of the stepwell many times, but could not seem to communicate with the auto driver or any of the helpful passerbys. Eventually a nearby hotel owner came over and helped us on our way, also ensuring that the driver take us to two other sites for a smashing good price. Not having researched very much, it was nice to make our day trip more worthwhile.

The stepwell was beautiful albeit not what we were expecting. It was nice that each stepwell we visited had a completely different design and feel to it.

The first bonus stop was at Gandhi's ashram (we think?) where we learned a lot more about his life, and Craig relayed the stranger of Gandhi's (non) sexual practices and beliefs to Erin.

The second bonus stop was another Jain temple. Although not as overwhelmingly beautiful as the first, we still had to go very slowly to appreciate the complexity of the designs. Photography wasn't allowed in this one.

On our way into town we had seen a long market street, so we ventured out in the afternoon but failed to find any great deals besides a new pair of headphones for Craig.

Day 139: Udaipur

For our last full day in Udaipur we set out to see the beautiful landmarks we had been watching lazily from rooftops. First it was off to the City Palace which opens a few hours after the book claimed. Luckily we slept in and only showed up 20 minutes early. We bought our tickets and headed in. After seeing a sign for the audio tour pick-up, we strolled up and discovered we would have to go to a different ticket office to get an audio tour ticket (the audio tour guy could accept the 2000 rupee/passport/credit card deposit required but not the 200 rupees for the ticket itself). At the other office we were told that our main tickets would not let us in for another hour. We would have to upgrade and pay double the price. We told him 'No.' and went in straight away after collecting our audio guide.

The palace was not nearly as crowded as we had expected at first and it was nice to stroll through at our leisure. The tour was not as interesting as Jodhpur's but still alright. Eventually a battalion of army cadets caught up with us and we sped through to try to find some peace, as the confined spaces seemed to amplify the very loud crowd.

After, we planned to go on a boat ride on the lake to see the lake palace from water level and get some new views of our surroundings, but we had just missed the boat. We did learn that we needed two more tickets each in order to go on the boat ride (one ticket just to get us through the next walkway beside the palace). With each ticket made of cardstock and half the size of a piece of paper we were running out of space to store them all.

Instead of waiting in the heat for the next boat we went out for lunch on a rooftop and then returned to the palace to catch our ride. The lake was beautiful but the lake palace was quite underwhelming after the stunning one we saw in Jaipur. Still, it will be cool to rewatch Octopussy and know that we've been there. We spent 30 minutes on an island that had some interesting architecture and great gardens at the water's edge.

In the evening, Erin got a massage, Craig found some beer, and we met up to watch the sunset followed by an enjoying and sporadic fireworks show. The city celebrated its Rajasthani election tradition of ousting the sitting state government.

Days 137-138: Places with Cool Names

Today we headed off on a road trip to see two nearby attractions: the Kumbhalgarh Fort and Ranakpur, another Jain temple.

Kumbhalgarh is set atop a high peak in the hills of the Aravalli range. It proudly advertises its wall's claim to fame: being second to only the Great Wall of China in size. Though not entirely clear in its description, we imagine that "largeness" refers to the length of the wall; however, it's also extremely impressive in width as twelve horses can march abreast at once.

The first benefit to the fort being a two-hour drive outside of town (after the beautifully scenic drive) was the lack of tourists. There were only four other friendly people who we crossed paths with up the windy walkway, through four gates, and into the fort's palace. The next was a complete lack of tourist infastructure inside the fort. It's been emptied out, so instead of admiring all of the royal relics of the past, you're there to gasp at the views across the mountains and towards the sand-duned desert, study the architecture, and get some exercise! So not only was it void of tourists, but also guards, salesmen, and guides vying for your business. This left us free to wander and make spooky noises in the darkened, echoing stairwells of the castle.

We had reservations about visiting another Jain temple after the first experience but we'd heard marvellous things about Ranakpur so we tried our best to smile and patiently adhere to their many requests prior to entering (we'd gotten no black clothing and no leather products right, but had failed at 'conservative covering clothing' because Craig was wearing shorts, and had to leave our cell phone, water, and gum behind). Surprisingly, the tampons in our bag weren't confiscated, though perhaps the security guard didn't know what they were? All in all, it was beyond worth it, and Craig couldn't stop raving about how comfortable his rented pyjama pants were.

The moment we stepped over the threshold, all frustrations disappeared. Ranakpur is most definitely one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire world. It gave us shivers to look at all of the carvings, and wander through the pillars. A beautiful tree grew up through one section, sunlight drifting in from above, statues of elephants provided central focal points in each quarter, and whispers of prayers could be heard almost as soft as our socked footsteps. It was one of those moments where you can comprehend the expression, "It was so beautiful it brought him to tears." We reluctantly left a half-hour later feeling deeply moved.