Monday, 28 November 2016

Sawasdee Thailand - A Week in Phuket

Phuket: 22/11/16 - 28/11/16

From 2 weeks in Indonesia to a month in Thailand...

After a pretty hectic 2 weeks in Bali and Java, we flew to Phuket (Thailand's biggest island - south Thailand) to relax. This was pretty exciting for me for 2 reasons: I love Thailand and we were meeting up with my two most favourite friends for a week. We arrived on the 22nd of November '16, and met up with Sam and Beky on the 23rd. On arrival in the airport we were a bit annoyed to find that every ATM in Thailand has a 200bhat (approx 5gbp) ATM charge, which was annoying because it meant we had to get a lot of money out at once. Apart from this, Phuket airport was pretty nice and we managed to get a metered taxi to our condo. 

Reunited
Now we'd been travelling on a pretty tight budget up to this point (forgetting Europe, because Spain in summer is crazy expensive), so we were used to staying in 0 star hostels, on mattresses I'm sure were made from brick, in the loudest part of town (see: India) for about 3-5gbp a night. However, obviously because it was a proper holiday for Beky and Sam it wasn't really fair to them to stay somewhere like that. So Sam had booked us a pretty nice condo on Air BnB for about 60GBP each for 5 nights. Bob and I arrived a day early so got to check it out first - it was very nice. Huge living room/kitchen, 2 bathrooms and 2 bedrooms. The bed was amazingly comfy (in comparison to others; see: India) and there was a swimming pool. Only downside was it was located a bit far away from the attractions. 

The week we spent in Phuket was pretty amazing, albeit expensive. We rented a car for a few days as it was the easiest way to get around (props to Beky and Bob for driving the pretty crazy roads, and to me for navigating. And to Sam for the top quality conversation). We also got to chill on the beach, swim in the sea (which for some reason is mad in Phuket - waves are crazy huge), see some temples (standard) and enjoy the local markets. Some things we did in Phuket:

Yeah it's pretty big
> Big Buddha (Karon, East Phuket) - lives up to it's name, it's pretty big. We got a taxi from our condo to the Buddha. It was pretty touristy at the top but the views were impressive and the Buddha even more so. We made the mistake of not asking the taxi to wait for us at the Buddha, so we were pretty stuck when it came to getting back down to the town. The winding path to Karon was quite long, but we were informed that there is pretty much no way to get down if you're not on a tour/have a taxi waiting. Also no WiFi to order a Grab. We started to walk down and made it to a viewpoint cafe where we had some food/Margaritas. The taxis from there were waaay to expensive so we started to walk again, when we were picked up by a truck, and the driver said he'd take us down to the town. We were then able to get a taxi from the town.
Lesson: Make sure the taxi waits for you, else you have the 3k trek back down to look forward to! 

>The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project & Bang Pae Waterfall - both located in the same national park. The project was really interesting, and if you're lucky you can see some gibbons in their cages. It looks after gibbons who can't live in the wild due to illnesses or being captured previously by humans and made to entertain tourists. You can adopt a gibbon or make a donation, as none of the entrance fee to the park goes towards the project. 
Waterfall life
We also walked up to the Bang Pae waterfall, which was beautiful. There are a few different parts in which you can swim, which we did. It makes for some great photos - which I could post here, but our GoPro decided that it would delete all our photos from this trip, which was really useful. Apart from this, it made for a nice day out. 

>Coconut Island - I don't think we did this trip right, but we drove to a pier in east Phuket where you can get a boat out to the island and to the floating restaurants. It was a nice little journey, but I'm pretty sure we got off at the wrong side of the island. We got to the pier on the island and walked for about 35/45 minutes up the road in the sweltering heat, only to see a lot of trees, dead frogs and the occasional bus full of construction workers. There was a little village and a couple of resorts, so we walked back to the pier. There were a lot of little crabs that we found on the beach, but I think that was the highlight of the island. We went to the floating restaurants which were very nice and offered some lovely views. 

So excited for meatballs
>Phuket Weekend Market (Phuket Town, close to the Public Park) - my favourite place. Okay, maybe not favourite but it was a pretty cool market. Filled with the obvious tourist tat, we did buy some elephant pants (standard Thai tourist attire) and had a look at the many stalls on offer. At the end, we discovered the fantastic food hall, filled with an insane amount of street food (Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese...). We had to try everything, obviously, so we started with some skewers (or as we like to call them: random 10 bhat meat on a stick), had noodles, fried sweet potato balls and Thai cakes. Could have stayed there all day. 

We also visited Kamala beach a couple of times, which is full of cafes/massages/people selling you things. It was a lovely beach, but as I said the waves were huge (like, if-you-just-stand-there-you-will-drown kinda huge). It's all overpriced for the tourists too, but that's to be expected really. If we came with a bit more money it would have been perfect. Beky also did a para sailing type thing where you're connected to a speedboat and it lifts you into the air, which was very cool! 

So yeah, Phuket was pretty awesome. It was great to see my girls (as always), and we came away with some cool memories, a bad sunburn and a craving for White Almond Magnums (well, I did anyway). 

Ciao, Sarah :) 

For more photos -- Instagram: wheres_halliday

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Madurai, India and the first Couchsurfing experience

Madurai: 7/10/16-11/10/16

The Indian adventure ends and we explore the world of Couchsurfing...

So, after what was quite frankly a crazy month in India, getting over the culture shock of Delhi, the tiredness of the 3 day train saga, and the stomach bugs acquired in Cochin, we were nearing the end of our time in this enormous, wonderful, mad country. It was a shame really, as we were just getting used to it! 


Watching the sunset in Madurai
After spending too much money in Europe, and wanting to try to hold on to our savings as much as possible, we decided to give couchsurfing a go. Bob has had an account for a few years, but never gotten round to using it. We'd heard good things, and it sounded perfect - staying with people for free, and experiencing a new side of a country/city that we might not be able to see whilst staying in hostels. I took control of the account and sent out some messages to potential hosts in Madurai, which is in South-East India, and where our flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka was departing from. 

We got in contact with Ramchand through the app, a really nice guy living just outside of the city. He was kind enough to host us for 2 nights, and staying with him made our first Couchsurfing experience memorable and fun. Upon arriving at the bus station in Madurai, Ramchand and his friend picked us up on their motorbikes. This was fine, apart from our huge bags. However, this wasn't a problem for the bikers, and with one bag each on our backs and on each in the footwell, we headed for the house. We nearly got squished on the way, attempting to zoom through two buses that were slowly getting closer together (I was pretty much in a Bond movie), but it's all fine and I'm here to tell the tale. 

Over the 3 days we spent with Ramchand, he was so welcoming and we saw so much of the city. He took us for a short hike up Elephant Rock where we watched the sunset, introduced us to a yoga master who gave us a yoga lesson (sadly, I am still very inflexible), showed us the huge Meenakshi temple at night and for my birthday took us to see a Tollywood film (the Tamil version of Bollywood) which was a pretty intense experience. 


Here are the highlights:

Beautiful Ganesh statue
> Yoga -- we were introduced to a 'yogi' who had a pretty impressive history of yoga teaching and learning, and who taught us some basic yoga. We took a bus to his house, where he lives with his wife, and which is covered in statues of Ganesh as well as many photos of his son (now also a yoga master) in some remarkable yoga poses. The class was really fun and not something we've really tried before, but unfortunately I am pretty much the most inflexible person on this earth (I can't even touch my toes), so I had a hard time. 

> The Gandhi Museum -- We visited this museum on the first day in Madurai. Bob had been before and wanted to go again, and I was interested in Gandhi's history. The museum is beautiful, with a large statue of the man himself proudly placed outside. Lucky for us, it was free (which always helps). The inside of the museum was full with photos and items from Gandhi's past. It was really interesting, and I learnt a lot about the man who 'liberated' India from the oppressive British. I wanted to go up to the museum staff and personally apologize for the pain and suffering we bought upon India, but thought that might be a bit too much. Anyway, it's an intriguing museum that I recommend visiting, but if you can't get to Madurai just Google Gandhi's history and have a little read.

> Tollywood Cinema and ecstatic fans --  As it was quickly approaching my 24th (aaah) birthday, Bob kept asking me what I wanted. We're travelling the world - what could I possibly want? Even if I did want anything, there is no more space in my bag for anything. It was fun trying to be creative with presents though! One of the things I really wanted to do was to see an Indian film, as Bollywood is undoubtedly a massive industry and is incredibly popular. Ramchand had the perfect place - a cinema close to his home, which showed 'Tollywood' (Tamil movies) films. There was a recent Tollywood release called Remo, about a man who wants to get the girl (I mean, what else could it be about?) but to do so, cross-dresses so he can get closer to her. The cinema was huge, and quickly filled with people. Before the film had started, there was a group of adolescent boys behind us who had started to chant the main actors name. This continued throughout the film, and when the actor appeared on screen, whoops of cheers could be heard across the theater. The film was OK, I enjoyed the music, and even though we couldn't understand a word of what was being said, the storyline was easy to follow. It was quite the experience. 


Exchanging flowers
>Food and the flower markets -- I'm putting these together as I feel like this post is getting long and I can make these two things short. So food is my 1# thing to do when travelling. I love food, and India has a lot of it (as well as all the other places we have travelled so far). Ramchand knew a nice local little restaurant not far from his house, which we went to all the nights we stayed with him. We had plates of roti, parratta or dosa (3 different types of bread) with different types of dips, curry and vegetable. It was like a spice roulette for me, as I had no idea what anything was, but it was fun to try. One of the days after lunch we also visited a huge flower market with Ramchand, where sellers would have all types of flowers (with all types of smells) on offer. It was pretty mad, as markets usually are, but really cool to see.
Overall we had an amazing time with Ramchand, and are so glad to have met him and the  other couchsurfers staying with him (one guy from Taiwan was cycling from South India to the North - absolutely crazy but so awesome!). As you'll hear later, we have continued Couchsurfing and haven't had a bad experience yet!

> Meenakshi Temple (at night) --  This was another place Bob had visited on his previous trip to India, and wanted to show me it. It is a huge, brightly coloured temple, covered in statues and lights. We went at night, in the middle of a festival, so it was rammed with people. We took about an hour to walk around the stalls, taking in the colours, sounds and smells. It was beautiful, and Ramchand treated us to some tasty Indian sweet street food after.

Overall we had an amazing time with Ramchand, and are so glad to have met him and the  other couchsurfers staying with him (one guy from Taiwan was cycling from South India to the North - absolutely crazy but so awesome!). As you'll hear later, we have continued Couchsurfing and haven't had a bad experience yet!



A very blurry photo of us and our first CS host, Ramchand
Last note -- Sarah turns 24 (aaaah)


My birthday is the 10th October, so we celebrated it on our last day in India. As I said, doing presents was interesting (not that there was anything I wanted), but Bob got me the 2nd Game of Thrones book on Kindle, as well as a small bottle of perfume that we'd seen in a market in Kochi and I'd mentioned I'd liked the smell of (so sneaky!). We also stayed in a swanky hotel in Madurai, which was amazing. The bed was like a marshmallow, and I had the longest/best shower in a long time. My birthday was completed with ordering Dominoes to the room (half courtesy of Rhiannon, whose Indian friend was able to supply us with an Indian phone number to order the pizza with), and a Netflix marathon in bed. What else could I ask for really?  

Anyway, Madurai was a great way to finish our Indian adventure and begin our Couchsurfing one. We were sad to leave the beautiful country, but very excited to see what was to come in Sri Lanka!

Ciao! Sarah.

P.S: If you ever go travelling and want to save some money/meet some awesome people/see a different side of a city, I thoroughly recommend Couchsurfing! They have an easy to download app, and you get the chance to stay with so many awesome people across the world! We're hoping to host some people when we're back in the UK. 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

3 days, 2 trains, 1 city (Jaipur to Goa)

Jaipur to Goa: 22/09/16-24/09/16

How we survived two 17 hour train journeys & 12 hours in Mumbai:

Sweaty, tired and disheveled after our first 17hr train - outside Gate of India

After the craziness of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, we booked our journey onto Kerala. We we contemplating how exactly to do this journey, as the straight train down the coast is a total of about 32 hours nonstop. We wanted to see as much of India as possible, but this wasn't easy in only a month. We settled on kind of breaking up the journey, by taking a train from Jaipur to Mumbai, and then Mumbai to Goa (with 12 hours in Mumbai). I think I possibly went delusional during those 12 hours, and I'll explain why. I felt like this whole section of our travels needed its own blog post, because a train journey in India is like visiting a city all in itself. 

Trains in India: Cheap, long and full of stories

Up to this point we had been on 2 trains, both fairly short journeys, from Delhi - Agra and Agra - Jaipur. We both enjoyed the journey; getting your own bed/seat, meeting different people with varying amounts of English and amazing stories, eating the questionable train cuisine. We had to take the train to Goa as it was the cheapest option and probably most comfortable. Honestly, the trains in India have been the best on our journey so far. Saying this however, if you don't stand in the exact position on the platform where your coach will be, it's doubtful you'll make it on the train as the whole length of the train is insanely long and trying to run up the platform with an 18kg bag on your back, in the rain, might just kill you. 

Both the trains we got were night trains, which were the best type as you can kill at least 8 hours by sleeping. If you upgrade to 2nd class you get a private curtain around your bed, but staying in 3rd class you get to experience people's feet in your face, and the most enjoyable part: snoring. Apart from this, sleeping on an Indian train has been a better experience than many hostels we have stayed in, so I can't complain at all. 

Train 1 (Jaipur - Mumbai): The first of our night trains. It was remarkably on time, and we settled down to our bunks, with the curious eyes of many Indian ladies and families upon us. We haven't had any problems at all on Indian trains (with creepy old guys etc, like you find watching you on the streets), and on this train we had a nice older couple in the bunks next to us. When Bob went off to the loo (another fun train experience - you can choose between a squat loo and a 'western' loo, both filled up to your ankles in water), the older man looked at me and in very broken English said 'Beautiful. Beautiful couple. You are Diana and Charles'. Now, I don't know if he knew much about British royalty, but I don't know if being compared to those two is really the best thing. However, I laughed and thanked him as he continued the say how beautiful we were. 
Spot the difference...
Mumbai: So the first train journey went without a hitch. It was fairly comfortable, and before we knew it the 17 hours were up and we'd reached Mumbai. Maybe it was the broken sleep I had, or the lack of food, or maybe just because I'm always grumpy when I wake up, but Mumbai is up there in my list of least favourite cities. It could be because we spent 12 hours there with not much to do between trains, but it was drizzling and loud and full of traffic. The train station was probably the nicest part of the area we were in, and is even a Unesco Heritage Site, which made it interesting. 


The pretty Mumbai Railway Station
We left our bags at a luggage drop in the station (thank God for that, else we would have been even more miserable walking around the city) and set off to get some breakfast. The streets outside were manic, so the little McDonalds across the road caught our eye, and we went to get some much needed food. After using the WiFi and refuelling, we set off to explore. It seemed somewhat calmer than Delhi, but reminded me a bit too much of London, with the grey atmosphere, huge buildings and masses of people + traffic. We walked up to the Gateway of India, a now tourist attraction built in honour of the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, built in 1924. It was nice to see,and an amazing place to people watch. We sat for maybe an hour or two opposite the gate, watching photographers trying to get people to take and buy their photos and lots of tourists and locals taking selfies. 

This is also where we encountered the phenomenon of people wanting to take our photos. Whilst walking across the square, a group of local teenagers cam up to us with a selfie stick and a phone. I thought they would as us to take a group photo of them, but no. They wanted selfies with us. We took maybe 4 photos with them, and then they said goodbye and left. I found this so strange - who would want a photo with 2 random, sweaty, red British people. Are the going to put them on Facebook? We were then asked to take maybe 4 or 5 professional photos with different families, and older women. We later learned that it's apparently looked highly upon if you have a photo with a Westerner in your home; something I still don't really understand. 


Mumbai's British influence - the
Taj Mahal Palace hotel
After exhausting the gate and the streets around it, we still had about 6 hours to kill. After wondering what to do now, we decided we would see a movie. The best way to kill time in a foreign place, when you don't have much money or any way to get about. Luckily Mumbai shows films in the original language (with English subtitles) so we went to see the Magnificent Seven. As soon as we settled into the seats, we had to get right back up again to honour India and listen to the national anthem. The film was good, apart from the added subtitles whenever anybody smoked saying 'smoking kills'. It was a cowboy movie, everyone was smoking most of the time. 

We then left the cinema, and with 3 more hours left, decided to go back to McDonalds and use the WiFi again. It was opposite the train station, and it was raining harder at this point. We walked to the cafe through a cricket ground and through the busy Bombay rush hour. By the time we had to get our train, it was pouring. Not English pouring, but Indian, monsoon season pouring. The walk to the platform wasn't exactly covered, so we had to dodge huge raindrops and puddles to get onto the train, which was then an hour late. Safe to say, we were soaked, tired, and looking forward to our bed. 

Train 2 (Mumbai - Goa): We found our seats, shoved our bags under them and settled down for another 17 or so hour journey. We were met by a group of older men walking up and down the carriage, being loud and laughing. They would occasionally sit on someones bunk to have a chat. One guy (red hair, looked like a TV presenter) sat down next to Bob. I think he was trying to speak in English although we didn't understand, and then took out some paper, drew Bob's name on it, and gave it to us like he'd just given us a piece of art. He laughed, a lot, whilst we were still looking very confused. He left, and the man sitting next to me simply whispered 'they are drunk, it's OK'. Drinking isn't a big thing in most parts of India, as it's very frowned upon by the Muslim community, so it was all very hush-hush. 


Our bed for 2 days -
more comfortable than they look
When it was time for dinner, we decided to order some train food, which consisted of a tray of rotti, rice and some sort of curry. We only got one between us as we weren't particularly hungry. When it came, the rest of our carriage looked at us sadly, maybe as if they thought we couldn't afford 2 meals (to be fair we did look a bit disheveled and tired after 12 hours stuck in Mumbai). We were then given some Indian cake, more bread, a samosa and the spiciest Bombay mix I've ever had (we couldn't eat it) by the kind people in the carriage. Again, the journey wasn't very eventful, although we arrived in Goa sleepy, hungry and with buzzing ears. 

Who knew I could write so much about a train journey?? It was possibly the longest (feeling at least) part of our travels so far so I guess there was plenty to write! 



It took us to Goa, an entirely different part of India...

Ciao!! Sarah

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Arriving in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur)



Delhi, Agra and Jaipur: 14/09/16 - 22/09/16

A crazy culture shock and our arrival into New Delhi

We took an 8 hour, fairly uneventful plane journey from Amsterdam to New Delhi, which was the first stop on our tour of Asia. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect as I'd never visited this part of the world before. Bob had been about 5 years ago with college, but only to the south, so wanted to experience a bit more. The standard Indian visa allows 30 days in the country so that's what we stuck to. We quickly learnt during our travels that we're pretty bad at planning but we had a vague idea of our plan for India (not really knowing how to travel in between or where to stay), and it went a bit like: 


New Delhi
Agra and Taj Mahal
Jaipur
Goa
Kerala (Fort Cochin)
Madurai

We were pretty good at sticking to this, and visited all of these places eventually but added a quick stop in Mumbai in between Jaipur and Goa. So this post will be about the first week and a half that we spent in the north of India, which were very busy, crazy and eventful. 

Landing in New Delhi and adjusting to the madness



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Crazy Delhi!

We booked a cheap hostel before we landed in Delhi so we could throw our bags in first thing and not have the stress of not knowing where we were staying. After what was maybe 2 hours trying to get through immigration in the airport, we took a taxi through the city and ended up in the narrowest, busiest, cramped road I've ever been on. You could just get the taxi through the mounds of tuk-tuks, stalls and people pushing their way through the street. Our hostel was at the end of a narrow side road that the taxi couldn't get down, so we had to make our way past the many eyes staring at us, past the rankest smelling open public toilet and down to the hostel. The place itself was nice and the room was surprisingly quiet for the road we'd just walked down. We settled down and tried to get our bearings (which didn't really work) and decided we needed some food. 

We were a bit reluctant to leave the hotel, because the mix of heat, noise and smells was somewhat overpowering for our first impression. However, we made our way back down the alley and towards a restaurant. We had to jump over potholes, dogs and people but eventually found somewhere to eat. It was our first authentic Indian curry and it was pretty good! After food, we decided to get back to the hostel and work out what we were going to do for the next month. 

We quickly learnt that most people who approach you/you talk to are trying to sell you something. We spoke to a few people who were just genuinely interested in talking but about 90% of the time they had something to sell. Our first experience was this was with the hostel owner, who was nice, but seemed to get more annoyed with us as we didn't want to book his tour of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. We also didn't want to buy the travel guide he offered us as, even though it would have been useful, it would have been hard lugging around a huge travel book. We did use this book to plan some more of India though, as we decided the best option was to get trains between cities (seemed safest, cheapest and quickest (after flying)).


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Getting ready for the Taj in Delhi
As we didn't have a lot of time in India, we decided to only spend a few days in the first 3 cities. We started with 3 days in Delhi, and on our second day there went to work out how to book a train. Luckily the train station was a stones throw away from our hostel. We crossed the insanely manic main road (by following a local, which is a very useful strategy we have adopted for crossing roads) and arrived at the station. We had read that touts are very common, taking you somewhere to buy a ticket which is just a tour operator who will charge you double the price. I didn't know how common this would be, but the first person to approach us outside the train station tried to stop us from entering without a ticket, although we knew that the only place to buy legitimate tickets was inside. We didn't listen to him, and managed to find the 'foreign' ticket office to get our train. We bought our ticket to Agra, and also to Jaipur.

No automatic alt text available.After sorting the next week out, we went on to see a bit more of Delhi. We had no idea where to start, but ended up on Connaught Roundabout, which we heard was a tourist sight. Like the rest of the city, it was crazy busy and full of sellers. We also got approached a lot by people telling us we shouldn't walk there because of pick pockets, so eventually we ended up in a restaurant. The food was overpriced but tasty (not the best start to our budget!!). After this we wanted to see if we could get a map of the area. We were taken to an 'information point' which was actually a tour agency. We were given a map but also a lot of information we didn't really want about an expensive tour around the city we didn't really want to do, so we took the map and ran. 




Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, outdoorThe next day we decided to do some tourist things. We saw a beautiful fort (the first of many in India) and also got a tuk-tuk to the India Gate, a huge gate in the middle of a roundabout. We knew it was free entry, but were given an India flag by some women who then demanded money from us. We were able to slip away when another group of tourists arrived. After looking at the gate for a bit we (by we, I mean Bob) decided to have a walk to the government buildings. I like a good walk but it was insane heat, middle of the day, and what looked like a never ending road. We went ahead anyway, and just about made it through the park to the end. After having another look, we hopped in another tuk-tuk to go back and prepare for the Agra trip.

Arriving in Agra and wanting to leave

The train journey to Agra was pretty uneventful, but a nice introduction to the Indian train system. It only took a couple of hours and we arrive late afternoon, hoping to just stay for a couple of nights to see the great Taj. We had booked a hostel, which we found down a dusty, unpaved side street. Our first, and overall impressions of Agra weren't very good. I would only recommend Agra for the Taj Mahal, and if you do stay, make sure you stay in a nice hotel outside of town, or stay for just one night. It is an interesting way to experience the culture, but is also very loud, dirty and full of touts (although we did expect this a bit). 

The tuk-tuk driver was the first bad experience we'd had in India - he asked us if we wanted a tour around Agra after seeing the Taj the next day. We planned to get up at about 5am to get to Taj early and not be too hot walking around. He said he'd take us to some forts at about 11am until maybe 6pm. We didn't particularly want to do this (spend extra money) as we knew we'd also be tired after seeing the main event. He was so insistent and said we could think about it and tell us the next day. The next day, when we were back from the Taj, he came up to our room and to cut a long story short, demanded money from us for 'wasting his time' although we'd never agreed to a tour. We gave him a couple of quid but were very annoyed (especially as he'd woken us up) and let him know we were annoyed. Moral: if you don't want to do something, say no!! Not maybe. 


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The most beautiful view

Anyway, that bad experience aside - the Taj was insanely beautiful. The first night in Agra we went up to the hostel's rooftop restaurant and the view was amazing. We were right next to the Taj and the view of the the rooftops, monkeys jumping over them and Taj was spectacular (see photo!). We'd also just come back from a quick walk around the local area (dusty and manic, and we nearly go attacked by monkeys) and it was nice to be above it and out of the craziness! 

The next day we got up crazy early to see the Taj. This was the first place we were told it was a 'must see' at sunrise. That's only applicable for about 2% of the places we've been to where we were told this. The Taj shouldn't be included in the sunrise group, just because everybody else is told this and the queue at this time is huge and there was no way we could even see the sunrise. However, I do recommend arriving early just because the temperature is so much cooler and it's easier to walk around the grounds. As expected, it was full of tourists, but that didn't really take away from how beautiful it is! I didn't want to leave, and we walked around for maybe 2 or 3 hours. It was even nice to just sit and people watch. 
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We only needed the day at the Taj, and didn't do much for the rest of the day (except eat the best damn poached eggs I've had on this whole trip). We slept, were bothered by tuk-tuk drivers and ate again at the beautiful restaurant. Although that was the only good part of the hostel, as I'm pretty sure the bed was made from concrete slabs and the toilet was nearly non-existent. We were sad to leave the Taj, but happy to leave Agra. 

Finishing the North in Jaipur

We left fairly early for our 7hr train journey to Jaipur (again, easing ourselves into getting the sleeping train). It was comfortable, and on it we met an American lady and her Indian guide (Dev). They were very interesting to talk to, and as they hadn't got a hostel booked, we shared a tuk-tuk to our hostel so they could book something. Obviously we chose the cheapest hostel (3GBP for a double room) so they stayed at a nice place around the corner. After dropping our bags into the room which was overloaded with cockroaches and ants, and another concrete bed, we met them again for some lunch. 

I felt sorry for the American because again, we had a very insistent tuk-tuk driver. After he dropped us he kept asking us and the lady about tours. We had learnt from our Agra mistake so said no, but she wanted a tour and had difficulty shrugging him off. We've found in Asia that all drivers want you to decide your itinerary for your time in whichever city and book it with them. The driver followed her to the hotel (so he knew where she was staying) and then picked us all up for a tour as she finally gave in and accepted he would drive us around. 

He did take us to a nice restaurant, and the woman was nice enough to pay for the car (I apologise for calling her 'American' and 'Woman' but I've forgotten her name and I feel bad about it!!). We also went to a temple with them which was very interesting. We watched a ceremony and then had a little chat with the Hare Krishna leader afterwards, which was organized by Dev. It was interesting to learn a bit about a new religion, although he did ask us who we should love, and when the American answered 'family' he disagreed, saying we should always love and put God first (which I didn't totally agree with). He also played us a recording of a woman reciting Steve Job's 'last words'. I don't know if they actually were his last words, but it was all about not putting money first and even though he had lots of money he wasn't happy as he didn't have love. I have since looked this up, and found his last words were 'Oh wow, oh wow oh wow', although there are some theories on the internet he did actually spout an essay about the wrong pursuit of wealth. Who knows really. 


We left the American and her driver at the temple, as she wanted to go shopping and we fancied sleeping. We were also meeting my Welsh ex-colleague Rhiannon the next day so were looking forward to that! We met her at her (swanky) hotel the next day, after we tried and failed to book train tickets (such a long story, but as we were travelling a long way and weren't booking far ahead, we pretty much had to come back the next day and hope there was a train out - luckily there was). We then tried to walk to Rhiannon's hotel but failed at that too, only getting halfway before hitting a busy highway. We then had our first experience of a rickshaw (a man on a peddle bike pushing us in some seats - an interesting concept). We met for dinner and sat for ages talking and it was nice to catch up! We also planned to do a tourist-tour of the city the next day. 

Photos of a Jaipur day out (feat. Rhiannon): 

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Image may contain: sky and outdoorImage may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoorWe met Shakeer the driver the next day, by coincidence, outside Rhiannon's hotel after having breakfast. We were asking around for the cost of a tour for a day, and luckily we found him. He took us around for about 15GBP for all 3 of us, and it was such a great day. He was so funny and knowledgeable, and although we were dubious about getting a non-touting taxi driver, he was great! All drivers are given commission by shops to take tourists there, and it was the same with Shakeer, but we didn't feel forced to buy stuff and got free tea! We also only went to maybe 2 shops and had the rest of the day doing things we wanted. We started with a tour of a couple of the forts and temples. We went to a quiet little temple outside of the tourist zone, which was really nice to walk round, and also saw a floating palace in a lake. After this we went to see some elephants. I'm always a bit worried that elephants in tour zones aren't looked after, as you see a lot about their mistreatment (especially with rides). However, we didn't have to ride them and the owner of the sanctuary limits the rides as elephants only need so much exercise. We instead fed them, which was nice!

Rhiannon was then travelling onto the north, and we were planning our trip down south, so took the next day to do that.  After a lot of confusion about getting either a 35 hour train, or 2 17 hour trains with 12 hrs in Mumbai, we settled on the latter and got some sleep for the long journey ahead!! 

Whew - that took a while to write. Anyway, our introduction to India was crazy but set us up for the rest of the trip. We were thrown in at the deep end a bit and it started out a bit stressful, but as time went on it got a lot easier! 

Ciao, Sarah :)


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Country #2 - Germany (Dusseldorf and Hoeve de Linde)



Germany 24th August - 10th September 2016

Catching up with family in Germany


Dusseldorf: We departed Madrid early. We arrived in Dusseldorf early. When we booked our flights we had two options, an early morning flight or a late afternoon one. Since we planned to meet the Mum, Dad and Hannah in Dusseldorf airport we figured we should book the early flight so we wouldn't keep them waiting. Instead the opposite happened. Shortly after we booked the flight which was due to get in around 11:30am we found out the family would be arriving at 5pm. We therefore spent the entire afternoon cosied up in our blankets on a bench outside of Arrivals playing chess, trying to nap and using it as an excuse to eat McDonalds. There should have been plenty of time to visit and explore the city for the day and be back in time to meet them but with our big old bags it wasn't really a possibility, or at least we didn't fancy it, we were knackered having got up at 4am to get to Madrid airport.


Tired faces in the airport

In any case eventually the time passed at it is prone to do and we successfully met them and everyone was happy to see each other. We hopped on the train heading for Bielefeld, dad insisted we have a beer or two and we all had a good catch up.
Never having been particularly confident with people meeting extended family is always a bit of an awkward business for me (imagine my shock when on the first time meeting Sarah's parents I also met her grandparents, great aunty and family friends on the same day) and arriving at our hotel was no exception. Thankfully Mum and Dad made for a good encyclopedia of the extended Wellmer family and friends. Once my initial awkwardness had started to subside and things became a little more relaxed it was good to see everyone again. Time for schnitzel and more beer.

There was of course an entire role reversal for Sarah and I. For the past 2 months every time someone had spoken to us I'd helplessly turned to Sarah for an explanation and translation of what had been said but now it was the other way round. The problem was that I was not used to being in the role of translator and I still turned to her with the same motion as before expecting her to have understood everything. Much to her understandable annoyance. I got better at it eventually.
Also swapping from Hola to Hallo is a absolute dyslexic nightmare.

The evening after the funeral service bit by bit people started heading their separate ways again and we prepared for a weekend with the Koepps (sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew) and the Aacheners (uncle, aunty and cousins) on the German-Dutch border at a small collection of guesthouses/converted farm houses in the countryside. We spent the next couple of days going on walks through the fields, BBQing, sleeping, playing games and fighting mosquitoes. It was an excellent weekend and a proper chance to unwind and have a catch up with everyone.

We spent one of the days at a lake an hour or so drive from Hoeve de Linde. Uncle Micha said I could drive his car there (with Mum, Dad and Sarah as passengers). I figured he must be joking, entrusting me with such a nice new car. There are certain times, especially when I'm surrounded by family that I forget that I'm actually (supposedly) an adult rather than still a child and am therefore confused when people treat me like a grown up. I think by default I asked mum and dad's permission if I was allowed to drive the car. In any case Micha very generously wasn't joking and he was quite happy for me to drive; thank you, uncle. Fortunately with him leading the way in their car and mum helping me navigate I didn't have to think too hard and the trip went smoothly, even if I did occasionally slam my left hand expecting to find the gear stick and but instead being greeted by the door handle. But anyway not bad for my first time driving on the wrong right side of the road. Sarah and Dad's white knuckles however told a different story.


A successful drive, a day at a beautiful lake and finished with a Spaghetti Eis. What's better?


(A note to myself, Phase 10, which Sarah and I played with Lena and Kolja is a game I definitely want to remember and play again).

Soon enough it was time to leave again and say goodbye to the family once more, this time for more than 7 weeks. For us we were heading to Friedburg for a week with the Koepps. Sarah took the car with them and I waited for the bus to Frankfurt and train to Frieburg as the car was full. It was strange, this was the first time in 7 weeks that we had spent more than a few minutes apart from one another. I would like to have joked that it was pure bliss but it ended up being quite a boring journey instead. Probably a good sign of things to come I guess.



Until then,
Bob

Monday, 22 August 2016

One crazy week: Seville and Madrid




Seville: 16th - 22nd August 2016

Burning up in Southern Spain:

There are only so many different ways I can describe how hot a Spanish summer is and yet Seville was still hotter than that. If you visit a place where even the locals struggle with the heat then you stand no chance. What are you meant to do when it's 40degrees at 4 in the afternoon? Well, hide I guess, which is pretty much what we did.


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Beautiful streets of Seville
Fortunately our tiny little room in our new Bnb had along with its tiny desk and tiny old rickety wooden bunkbed a tiny little balcony just big enough for 2 child sized stools. Shaded from the sun by the blocks of flats on either side it made a perfect place to sit in the mornings and eat our breakfast, which for most of the week consisted of Lidl's pastries. The balcony also helped cool the room down from unbearably hot to just incredible hot but on the plus side at least there were no fake satin sheets on this bed.
Our friendly and chatty hosts, Fatima and her mum  were also hosting Pat a Bostonian who had just moved to Seville with a marketing job. Although he was learning his Spanish by this point was not hugely better than mine and our hosts spoke no English either so fair play to the guy for sticking it out. For us it was quite a nice break as it gave us someone else to talk to. Sarah could communicate well with everyone we came across whereas I could only understand some basic Spanish and ask some rudimentary questions, beyond this I hadn't had a conversation with anyone but Sarah since first arriving in Spain a month before hand and so talking with a native English speaker was very refreshing.

With two people on one budget double rooms are almost always cheaper than the cost of 2 beds in a dormitory. The result is that we almost always stay at hotels and guesthouses over hostels which is nicer as it gives us privacy but you never really end up meeting anyone.Unlike in previous cities on our trip so far this time round we didn't visit museums and such attractions but spent most of our time walking the streets of the beautiful old town with its winding roads, large stone buildings, expansive parks while dodging the bikes, trams and horse drawn carriages. The discovery of an unexpected and poorly advertised Hard Rock Cafe (#2 of the trip) gave us the perfect excuse to have a Sundae.

No automatic alt text available.As far as I'm aware Seville is known for 2 things: oranges and flamenco. Sadly we were there the wrong time of year to see any actual oranges in bloom on the numerous oranges trees which lined most streets but thankfully flamenco isn't so seasonal. Thanks to excellent detective work by Sarah we found a cosy little venue - half bar half builders yard - which had a free nightly flamenco performance. From what we could find this was the only free show in the city as every other bar which had a flamenco dances in the evening required tickets for entry. The result was a very fun (and cheap) evening watching Flamenco and drinking beers and wine which ended with what Sarah believes to be the best Kebab she's ever eaten and I'm not sure I disagree with her either.

Sarah's added: The most important part of our trip to Seville was when I came across the biggest cockroach I've ever seen. It was the same colour as my bag so I managed to nearly touch it, scream, run out the room and nearly lock Bob in with it. We then spent the afternoon with our host shouting a lot of 'cucarachaaaaa', spraying a lot of bug killer and smacking it with shoes. It's OK - we survived to tell the tale. 

Bad news and sad news:
During this week we found out after over a month of waiting that our landlady from our Cardiff flat wanted to take 715 pounds from our 725pounds deposit. This news followed the estate agent's review of our flat which found nothing wrong and only 2 incidences where the extra cleaning might be needed. Having quit our jobs either of us an income so this quantity of money was hugely important to us, needless to say it made our hearts sink and infuriated us beyond belief, especially considering the effort that had gone into cleaning the place before we left (thank you again Malcolm and Sharon for helping us out there). This email started a process which didn't get resolved until November after 100 of emails, facebook messages and phone calls. Thankfully in the end *spoiler* we got it all back.

The following day I received far worse news from mum and dad. Sadly my Opa Hans had passed away which came as quite a shock. Wishing not to dwell on this, we cut short our trip to Seville and headed to Madrid to catch a flight to Germany for the funeral.

We ended our week in Seville with a few beers with Pat in TGI Fridays. It's disappointing how easily I get hangovers these days...Before our flight to Germany we had given ourselves one full day to explore Madrid and so that's what we did. At very high speed.


Madrid - 22nd - 24th August

After a long bus journey from Seville to Madrid with a hangover from hell we spent the afternoon around our Bnb chilling and planning the next day:

Madrid in a day: All things considered I think we did pretty well. Madrid is big and I'm fairly sure we managed a decent chunk of it. Gardens, palaces, ramblas, squares, a viewpoint/tower and of course a Sundae in Hard Rock (#3 of the trip). We even treated ourselves to a metro pass for the day so we didn't have to travel everywhere on foot; absolute luxury. In the evening we headed back to the royal palace where we had started the day since we had found out that for an hour or so before the palace closed entry was totally free instead of costing the normal 11Euros per person. We thought it was a good idea but apparently so did everyone one else visiting and living in Madrid. The queue for Palace stretched out of the box office, across the plaza then over and around the step of the cathedral opposite, but living up to our cultural stereotype we stood in line and stoically queued despite the heat and our tiredness until we were let in. For a free tour the queue was definitely worth it. Decadent and ostentatious are the two words that came to mind when walking around the palace, with every consecutive room the chandeliers seemed to grow larger and the clocks more numerous.

After a while our empty stomachs, dry mouths and London feet begged for us to quit the palace and head home. Madrid is a big beautiful city, so different from Pamplona where we'd started our travels seemingly so long before, but now it was time to move on, Time for Germany.

Until then,
                 Bob

If you ever needed proof of the heat

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Alhambra, heat and not much else.

Granada 9th-16th August 2016

How we discovered that you don't want to stay long in Granada...

Having finally spotted a reasonably priced (for our budget) AirBnb at only 10GBP a night we jumped at the chance and following the pattern we had created for ourselves we went ahead and booked a week in Granada. Considering the price the place turned out to be excellent, it was a 2 bedroom student-like flat with kitchen and living about 20 minutes walk from the centre and as an added bonus the second bedroom which was also rented out to Airbnb'ers was empty for most of the week. The flat did however have a couple of major downfalls, things that would have been manageable had we been staying for a night or so but after a week it started to grow old. The entire flat had one desk fan to cool it down meaning there wasn't much stopping the 38degrees+ heat outside from coming within and to top it off the owner had decided on using fake satin sheets for the bed; the result was a bed that rather than absorbing your sweat during the night instead irradiated it back at us leaving us stewing in a puddle of our sweat by morning...noice. The other drawback was the lack of Wi-Fi. Now admittedly this shouldn't really be an issue; we had just arrived at a new city and were only there for a week, surely there should be plenty of things to do and see to take up our time. You would think so, but sadly not.


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Granada does look lovely from the Alhambra though
One of the reasons I've spent so much time complaining about the flat in this entry is because there isn't much else to write about our time in Granada and anyone who's been to the city can attest to the lack of things to do there, especially over the period of the week. This was why having no Wi-Fi was a pain in the ass. Consequently we are a little ashamed to admit we ended up spending far too many ours in the local supermarket and burger king stealing the free internet (and of course playing lots of chess) - there is a limit to the amount of time you can spend in bars (apparently). Not our most productive week, but hey we learned a lesson: don't book a whole week in advance, book a few days and extended if need be. Kind of obvious advice in retrospect.

Image may contain: plant, tree, table, outdoor and natureThere is of course the one big attraction in Granada and the reason why we headed there in the first place: Alhambra, a place we were actually pretty lucky to get into. It never occurred to us to check the ticket situation for Alhambra as we figured we would be able to buy them no the door. Nope. They need to be booked in advance and are only valid on a specific day, for a specific time slot and every single ticket was sold out for the week we were there. Bugger. Fortunately for ask after inquiring at the tourist information centre we were told that across town there was a ticket office for Alhambra which re-sold previously cancelled tickets meaning there was still a chance however limited. With the office scheduled to close soon after we headed across town at speed, found the office which was recognisable by the line of tourists doing exactly the same as us and after a moment of queuing we were luckily presented with 2 tickets for the next morning. 
And so the next morning we were up and out the house by 6:30, for once we were outside before the sun was hot enough to melt our faces off and we began our trek up to Alhambra.


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The Alhambra was incredible. A myriad of cool buildings and structures with intricate details on every surface imaginable. Everything had we planned and built to a T, even the conservation effort that has gone into preserving the medieval complex is fantastic. There are only so many ways I can describe these cool Arabic buildings so instead I will just show you the photos. After 3 hours of wondering around our eyes had had their fill, our feet were knackered and our stomachs were empty so we did the only thing we knew to do: Pub.
Infamous Piononos

Piononos. This strange sounding word was Granadas signature food, where Valencia had Horchata and Catalonia had Fartons Granada had Piononos. After seeing them advertised everywhere by every baker in town we finally tried one and despite this little dessert being utterly delicious I still to this day have no idea what it is. They are some sort of cakey dough rolled up like a cinnamon bun, dripping in some sort of juice or sauce and a type of icing on top. Strange but delicious.

According to Wikipedia: Piononos have two parts: a thin layer of pastry rolled into a cylinder, fermented with different kinds of syrup which give the pionono a sweet and pleasant texture, crowned with toasted cream. It is typically eaten in one or two bites." ...If that is any less ambigous.


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With Einstein outside the planetarium
The Planetarium was the only other thing of note we did during the week, supposing that visiting lots of bars doesn't count. It was a simple planetarium screen attached to a science museum at the far end of town where we watched an interesting short film about MC Escher, his creations and how we was influenced by the designs found at the Alhambra. Of course it was all in Spanish so I understood an unsurprisingly little amount but it was very visually interesting nonetheless.

Finally the week was over and at least we had had a chance to do some planning for the future during our 4 hour Burger King session and next up on the agenda was Seville.

Until then,

                     Bob