Monday, 22 December 2014

Breaching the Unknown Part 4 - Conquering the Pass

Khoo, a local Manang dish
            Day 9 – Nothing like trying some yak meat first thing in the morning. A dish local to the Manang region, Khoo. A rice and potato porridge with fried yak meat and chives on top. An extremely simple dish, but so flavourful. A prime example of how the mountain villages make the most of what they have to work with. I found the yak meat similar to beef with a stronger flavour, slightly gamey. Comparable to the difference between lamb and mutton. 
              Leaving Yak Kharka walking through pastures with yaks grazing (the literal translation of Yak Kharka, yak pastures), it was a short day and reasonably effortless day compared to previous days. Over a couple dodgy looking bridges and Thorong Phedi appeared around the edge of the mountain. We decided to spend the night here instead of going up to the high camp, only about an hour further up a steep path.
              Day 10 – Rest.
              Day 11 – Five in the morning, that time when you would rather throw your alarm across the room. It was hard to get motivated, the rest day had taken my momentum and the poor weather didn’t help. It had rained recently and the clouds threatened it might again. I couldn’t justify sitting around another day, I was anxious to reach the pinnacle of the Annapurna Circuit and conquer the Thorong-La Pass.
At the pinnacle, Thorong-La pass 5416m
              First stage was to climb the steep path to high camp, recommended to do the evening before. Now I see why, as doing this first thing in the early morning was, well let’s say not ideal. A quick tea break, then the final two hour ascent of six hundred meters to the climax. My quads burning, my chest heaving, but as the mountain of prayer flags came into view, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. A fresh wave of energy flowed through my veins as I almost broke out into a run to reach it. One of my most rewarding accomplishments.
Taking in the valley on the way to Muktinath
              A celebratory shot of whiskey was slugged back as the photo shoot began, everyone getting their fair share of pictures at 5416 meters, crossing the Thorong-La pass. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our sides obscuring the view with thick cloud cover. Sitting around enjoying the atmosphere of such a tremendous achievement, after thirty minutes a light snow began to fall and it was time to accept that the only way forward was back down.
              Three hours of constant downhill put the strain on my knees to stop me from running forward. At the beginning it was barren mountain desert, void of most life. It had a quiet beauty of its own as I lost everyone in the thick fog. The clean air, arid landscape and noiselessness of it all cleared my mind, taking my thoughts into the vast expanse of nothingness. Breaking through the fog into the valley leading down to Muktinath was a view meant only for the eyes. Almost a shame to even bother capturing it on film.
Yak Donald's combo
              Day 12 – Originally planning on renting mountain bikes to carry on to Jomsom, there was none available due to off season. Oh well, what’s one more day of trekking. Only downside was for the most part we were back on the developing road with minivans, cars and bikes honking away, disturbing the peace. An annoyance I had almost forgotten about. A short stop in Kagbeni, the entrance to the Mustang region of Nepal (special permits required to go any farther), to eat at a restaurant I heard so much about, Yak Donald’s. One of those things you have to try. I ordered up the Yak Donald’s combo, a yak burger with yak cheese, fries, salad and sea buckthorn juice. Simply put, McDonald’s has some competition. Much better food, if your one who considers McDonald’s food.
              The next morning we caught a bus from Jomsom back to Pokhara since everyone was running short on time left in the country. This was one the best experiences of my life, physically and mentally pushing myself to limits I was unaware of beforehand. The people, culture, scenery of the Himalayas is incomparable to anything I’ve come across before. The food humble and unique to the region. This is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody, but would recommend to everybody.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Breaching the Unknown Part 3 - Tilicho Lake

Day 6
               Day 6 – It’s recommended that once you reach Manang that a day is taken to rest and acclimatize to the elevation. Since I made it here in five days, one day ahead of the guidebooks I probably shouldn’t have left at seven in the morning to take on the most difficult and dangerous side trek on the Annapurna circuit. They also recommend not trekking this section by yourself. Since I happened to meet another group of seven trekkers who were going in the morning, I had two choices. Skip acclimatization or trek by myself the following day, so off I went.           

Kids of Khangsar

                Before the most strenuous part of the day, we had stopped in the small village of Khangsar for a quick snack break, all craving for a snickers. Once we left, it was almost constant climbing on a hard to decipher path until we reached the landslide crossing. This said to be the most dangerous section of the trek. It was a potential death trap where one slip or accidental waver with the weight on your back sending you off balance to a gravelly doom. The gravel slipping beneath my feet to the abyss below, threatening to take me with it if I didn’t keep moving forward. The path at points only as wide as my foot having to place one directly in front of the other. If there wasn’t enough to worry about even though it was an adrenaline rush, a constant eye and ear had to be aware of the potential of falling rocks from above. Making it safely across, a reasonably smooth path led us into the Tilicho Base Camp for the night.
                Day 7 – Sleeping in slightly for the first time since setting out, it was a ten o’clock start for an eight hundred meter climb. The steepest and most constant ascent, trekking only uphill for three hours with about one hour worth of breaks. The air becoming so thin, the lack of oxygen kicking me in the chest today. I’d never seen my chest heave up and down so much and rapidly attempting to catch my breath but never quite succeeding. It was a demoralizing climb at points, thinking you’ve been climbing forever and gone so far when around every bend it just got steeper. A pounding headache came on quick, but luckily with the help of a couple peracytamols, it faded just as fast. This is clearly why acclimatization is important. Finally flat land was under my feet and Tilicho Lake (one of the highest lakes in the world, 4950m) appeared before my eyes. The turquoise pool fed by a glacier, surrounded by snow-capped mountains was one of the most beautiful and rewarding sights I’ve ever embraced with my own two eyes. Truly seemed like the home of a mythical being where one would pilgrimage to.
Inuksuk at Tilicho Lake
               A plan to light a fire and cook some instant noodles for lunch was put out by the wind and the light drizzle of wet snow that was beginning to fall. In the meantime while everyone made their attempts at lighting one, I built an Inuksuk and decorated it with some prayer flags. A little bit of Canada left behind mixed with Nepal and Tibet. Once the idea of lunch had been forgotten, we made haste back down to our lodging as the rain was picking up. Strolling back into base camp was a relieving feeling after such a demanding and rewarding day. Dinner and the warmth from an actual fire was in order. It would have been an extremely trying day had I been by myself. Sometimes the helpful push from your group is needed besides my own drive and stubbornness.
Crossing the land

                Day 8 – It was time to get back on the initial Annapurna circuit via the side trail leading up to Yak Karka. First things first was to follow our way back and over the landslide area again. This time it seemed a lot less daunting. Once across the path forked, one going back where we had come, the other heading up and around the side of a mountain. Randomly there was what seemed like an abandoned village, run down and lifeless except for a few livestock that were still residing in the barns. Over the last peak for the day, and I began to descend through a forested section with a scent at first I could not decipher. Constantly inhaling deeply through my nose, I realized it to be the aroma of apples and cinnamon baking. Odd but pleasant.
Seemingly  abandoned village

                At the bottom of the valley I crossed over the Thorong River with only the last stretch along the road to Yak Karka ahead of me. I met a local from Kathmandu who was sitting on the bridge with a notebook. At first I thought maybe he was an artist, but as we made the last hour hike together he explained his job, which had me a little jealous. He would spend about 15 days each month trekking from Besi Sahar to the last town before the Thorong-La Pass inspecting the bridges and reporting back if maintenance was needed. Once I reached town and slipped off my boots it was relaxing to see a group of locals crowded around the television trying to keep up to date with the FIFA World Cup, a great way to end the Tilicho Lake Side Trek.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Breaching the Unknown - Part 2

          Day 4 – Stiff, muscles tightened, I awoke with the pain of an intense workout at the gym. This was a natural gym at its best. My body took a thrashing after yesterdays forced hike trying to get ahead of schedule. Sore and aching, I stretched it out as best I could with my very brief knowledge of yoga, but the show must go on. I loaded up on breakfast, muesli and boiled eggs. Nothing but protein and carbs, hoping to keep me going for the day.

As I packed my things, it began to drizzle but I didn’t want to set out any later. I had a goal I wanted to meet for the day, staying ahead of schedule. Instead of breaking into a heavy downpour, luckily it only left the ground damp and ceased after a half an hour. With or without the rain I was soaked through due to the steep ascents. Always trying to keep my eyes out for wild berries, anything recognizable so I can inquire in the next town about them, I found some wild strawberries alongside the trail. The one benefit I think to hire a guide opposed to taking it on yourself for me would be learning more about foraging for edibles in the Himalayas.

With my body still adjusting to the intense physical demands of trekking the mountains, I felt there was times I lost touch with what I was even doing. Almost falling forward to force the next foot in front of the other, feeling each step in the soles of my feet. I clambered into Dhukur Pokhari with the thought of continuing on, but for once my better judgement beat my stubbornness. I needed a break and didn’t want to chance travelling in the dark, not to mention my pace had dramatically slowed since the last village. Other than my feet my body couldn’t fully feel the pain it was in until I took my pack off and tried to rest. My left shoulder had the worst of it, my back was sore and my legs felt like jelly trying to walk up stairs. I felt slightly nauseas from the combination of hunger, dehydration, physical exhaustion and thousand or so meter rise in altitude. Almost a full day ahead of the recommended checkpoint, I collapsed happily into bed.

Sea buckthorn
Day 5 – It was a beautiful morning, no trace of rain. The clouds almost non-existent for the first time letting the sun break on through warming the bones and drying the clothes I had hanging off my pack like a clothes line. Miraculously my shoulder almost forgot the pain it was in, leaving only my feet to remind me of the torture I’d put them through. The aroma of pine and spruce permeated the air as the climate changed as I rose in elevation. From subtropical slowly transforming into an alpine region with a large farming presence with fields of buckwheat, millet and beans. As I worked my way towards Manang I noticed juniper bushes in abundance. Unfortunately most were unripe but managed to find a handful to chew on. Stopping for tea in a small village I was introduced to sea buckthorn juice made from a berry that grows wild in the region, which had a flavour similar to carrot and orange together.

 I reached my goal by three o’clock sunburnt and ready to call it an early day. I checked into the Tilicho Hotel and met the first trekkers I had seen in three days. I didn’t really know if I would run into many others and as nice as it was to trek peacefully at my own pace, it was a breath of fresh air to meet some new people. One more dal baht (I lived off this) with a dal made from buckwheat opposed to lentils and a sunset over the mountains, it was time to crash. An early morning would come quick.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Breaching The Unknown - Part 1

Day 1 – 6:30 am. Packing only the essentials, a couple outfits to hike in, one to hang around in at the days finish, gore-tex gear, basic toiletries, a couple books, a little food (muesli for the mornings, granola bars and trail mix as snacks on the move), and of course my juggling balls I picked up in India. It was on to a tightly packed local bus, bags strapped to the top heading towards the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit, Besi Sahar. A two to three week trek into the Himalayas through multiple climates, over the Thorong-La Pass and back around the Annapurna mountain range, some of the tallest mountains in the world.
50 shades of green
              Hitting the path, or at this point dirt road from the far end of town, the anticipation was boiling in me. I almost started running to get as far into the mountains as I could. I didn’t want to kill my legs right off the get go with an extra twenty pounds on my back, give or take, and I wanted to appreciate every ounce of my time here. I’m surprised I didn’t walk off into the river not paying any attention to the road ahead. My eyes stuck off into the distance watching the speed of the river or into the lush carpet of trees, corn, rice and banana trees covering the foothills. Fifty shades of green.
Peeling vegetables for dal baht
              As I continued further down the road that over recent years has been slowly creeping its way around the circuit, the new age clashed with the old. Dams were being built for hydro-electric plants, construction prominent which was taking away from the peaceful serenity one expected from the ‘isolated’ Himalayas. Raped of its virginity by the modern era. As I asked around, some were happy with the change, providing better electricity, easier transportation of goods, to hospitals and relatives in neighboring villages and of course a demand for work. On the other side of things, many were content and would prefer life the way it was before. The noise pollution tremendous, the scenery compromised and it takes away from the trekking which many villages rely on. Many people these days wonder if it’s worth trekking anymore. In my opinion, it acts like a festering wound on a perfect body.
Small village
              Making my way towards Ngadi, my first stop for the night, I was intercepted by a local heading in the same direction. Inviting me to his little guesthouse, I graciously accepted. In the off season, generally rooms are free since business is low, as long as you eat both dinner and breakfast there. No problem, no motivation to go elsewhere after a day’s hike. The couple so accommodating, going out of their way to get me some local rice wine for dinner and allowed me to help prep for our dal baht dinner ( a traditional Nepalese meal, similar to the Indian thali) by cleaning the vegetables. The best one I had in Nepal. They are all same, same but different.             
Fresh garlic drying
             Day 2: Off the road and onto a trail leading through subtropical forests. Its then that I truly realized I was really trekking into the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range. Taken aback by everything, the sounds of the river and wildlife, the smells of damp earth and vegetation. Even though it was physically exhausting, it was mentally relaxing, meditative. As I entered small villages, what seem unchanged for centuries, a new set of smells filled my nostrils. A smell of my childhood as I roamed our country property. The scent of surrounding fields, livestock being housed and the fresh garden. The occasional waft of fresh garlic.
              The humidity hung thick in the air, and the dark clouds of the ever threatening monsoon rains loomed over head as I entered Ghermu. It was time to settle in for the night. With no one else in town, I had free pick of all beds in town. It was a tough day ascending close to five hundred meters, but good preparation for the days ahead. I stuffed my face with another dal baht and lied down to rest my feet.
              Day 3: Today I was heading out alone. One of the two I began with fell ill through the night and was staying put for the day. It was nice to have company, but hitting the road into the unknown by myself was another thrill in itself. A place where solo trekkers have gone missing in the past.
              I entered a quaint village named Syange and thought to stop for a morning cup of ginger tea. The man at the teashop sold more than tea, tempting me with some of the famous Nepalese charas I’ve heard so much about. Coming straight from the mountains, how could I resist. Another one of his interesting wares was an expensive form of Chinese medicine that he would forage for in his spare time. Yarchagumba, a ghost moth larvae mummified by a parasitic fungus. Used for many ailments and as always an aphrodisiac.  The bright yellow one the most prized followed by the more common red-orange.
              Since Syange the scenery had been getting even more spectacular. Walking past stunning waterfalls surging from the mountain walls plunging hundreds of meters to the Marshyangdi River below. A couple hours before Tal, the recommended checkpoint for the night, the rains caught me for the first time. Only a light rain almost waiting for me to get into town before it unleashed its true fury (not that it would have mattered since I was soaked through with sweat). Within five minutes of sitting down to another cup of tea the clouds let loose.

Himalayan blueberry
              I thought I was stuck for the night, but so badly wanted to get ahead of schedule. After an hour of waiting, the rain reduced to a slight drizzle, I took it as my opening. I didn’t realize it was to be an uphill battle on a slick path sometimes less than a meter wide with a direct drop into the rapids that would wash you away in seconds. I reached Dharapani, my personal goal for the day sitting at two thousand meters, when only three days ago I was at eight hundred. When I arrived I was offered some Himalayan blueberries that the kids were snacking on. A little more bitter than what I’m used to but a great way to cap off a long and strenuous day. Nine hours trekking the mountains is similar to a sixteen hour day in a busy kitchen. You don’t realize what your body went through until it’s done.

To Be Continued…

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Land of the Gods

               It began with the slow crossing of a kilometer long bridge over a shallow valley by peddle power. The natural border between India and Nepal, locals tend to cross freely. A quick check in for my visa, and onto a night bus that I’m sure was going to snap the axles.  
The Emerald Hills
              When I woke, I was in a new ancient land for the gods. Embraced by a goddess, holding me close to her bosom, dressed in a breathtaking emerald gown glistening in the morning sun. Gently caressing her curves as I entered the valley, I was already in love. Her beauty infectious, sinking a hook in my heart. The imperfections were perfection. A country so mesmerizing, I was lost, entranced. 
It was all new again, a different country, city, language, culture and cuisine. My curiosity and imagination on the loose, running wild of what was to come and what once was while walking through the centuries old streets and alleys of a once medieval culture. Temples and stupas, shrines and monuments around every corner, constantly discovering something different and interesting. A place for me to get lost in the childhood recesses of my imagination.
Pork Momos with Tomato Chili Sauce
I roamed the hippie/backpacker area of Kathmandu, Thamel, perfumed of hash and incense. Narrow streets lined with shops selling everything Nepalese and Tibetan you could want. Local restaurants hammering out traditional dishes like momos, a Tibetan dumpling and dal bhat. Similar to the Indian thali meal usually with potato curry, dal, vegetable, pickle and rice or sometimes a preparation of buckwheat called dhido. Steakhouses are prominent as trekkers often require a taste of home after weeks in the mountains. Trekking and electronics shop have popped up all over. Generally selling fake brand name gear preying on the unorganized traveller heading for the unexpected hardships of the unforgiving Himalayas. Over the years it has shifted here, but began on what was called ‘Freak Street’, part of the hippie trail in the 60’s and 70’s. No longer reminiscent of what it once was, it is still near the Durbar Square. One of three in the Kathmandu Valley, a plaza full of Newar architecture seen in the temples and monuments surrounding the Royal Palace. This one also containing the Kumari Ghal where the most famous Royal Kumari resides. The reincarnation of a living goddess.
Rafting the Trisuli
It was five thirty in the morning, head fogged trying to find the noise that was rattling me into consciousness. With a bad case of cotton mouth and a churning in my stomach I knew a few too many beverages had been consumed, especially for what I was about to do. Managing my way downstairs dragging my heavy feet, I was ushered to a bus where I dropped to my seat and was out. Next thing I know I was strapped in a life jacket, helmet, with a paddle in hand hurtling down the Trisuli River. Starting off calm with a strong current as the rapids grew, they grew in my stomach just as much. The heat bearing down, the guide yelling commands and being tossed around was taking its toll, so when we flipped into the cold mountain stream it was invigorating. Once I surfaced, I was shocked to life. Then realizing it was a mad scramble for sandals, paddles and water bottles, I began the search while rushing towards the next set of rapids. 

The Last Resort Bungee View
 My next five thirty awakening wasn’t quite as harsh. I kept it reasonably tame the night before knowing I was jumping off of a swaying cable bridge. The Last Resort, a few hours from Kathmandu, a place for adrenaline junkies. With limited money one thing in particular struck my interest. Plunging one hundred and sixty meters into a valley over the raging Bhote Khosi River. For those of you have never bungee jumped before, in my opinion it’s one of the most addicting feelings. The feeling while standing on the edge of the platform, feet strapped in is like the calm before the storm (not to mention it had starting raining heavily as I was being strapped in reminding me of that minute of staring, the rain beginning to fall before the fight at the end of an action movie), as you take in the surroundings of your elevated view. I almost forget that I’m standing here to jump but then the tug of the cord comes, and looking down brings me back into perspective. What seems like in the distance I hear counting down, 3, 2, 1. I spread my arms as if I’m trying to fly, lean forward and gravity does the rest. Wind rushing past my face, the ground getting closer, my mind almost goes blank as I take in the hit of adrenaline, like a junkie shooting heroine. I got my temporary fix. The tension of the cord starts and then springs you back up like a ragdoll. Being lowered down, heart beating furiously, I’m already thinking about the next time.
The Durbar Square
It’s a terrible question to ask a traveller what their favorite country is. To compare is nearly impossible for me. Having unique personal experiences and growth, good and bad in each, I never have a direct answer to this question. Nepal though, there was something about it that immediately I was drawn to. The people friendly and hospitable, the culture ancient and diverse, the landscape stunningly beautiful, the food humble and flavourful. I don’t know if this would be my favorite country, but it would be high on my list so far. One that I would highly recommend everyone should visit. Once is not enough!

Videos of the bungee jump and canyon swing on my YouTube page.


Wednesday, 30 July 2014

T.I.I. This Is India

Taj Mahal
              India… four months later and I’ve fallen for you. From northwest to south, and back to the northeast I became accustomed to the pace of life here. Everything seems so sped up compared to what I’m used to, but I came to realize this was only an illusion. When the barrier shatters before your eyes life slows down, patience truly does become a virtue, but I grew to enjoy this. Shanti Shanti as I was told so many times. Peace, relax, patience, chill out.

              A country full of paradoxes. Vast wealth to crippling poverty, cities with hundreds of millions to tribal villages, overwhelming crowds to the humbleness of few, towering snow-capped mountains to cracked barren desert to luscious dense jungles, deafening noise to the serenity of silence, turmoil of past conflicts to the notion of peace, pristine monuments to fields of filth, courteous hospitality to opportunistic scams, strictly ruled to blatant corruption, and the list continues.
Fresh Grilled Crabs
              The food is as diverse as the culture, every region has their own style just like their languages. Kashmiri cuisine in the far north heavily based around meat such as lamb, mutton and goat. Punjabi famous for tandoori food and Rajasthani, influenced by the many occupations of the state throughout its history and the limited ingredients from its arid landscape. Mustard oil and paste are predominant in Bengali cuisine along with the fish from the Ganges Delta and is well known for the collage of sweets. Goan cuisine is loaded with fresh seafood, chili and coconut milk with a strong Portuguese influence. The cashew and coconut feni, a strong distilled liquor produced strictly in Goa has a pleasant kick to it with the subtle aroma of the ingredient it’s made from. A popular drink Toddy, coconut palm beer is made all over the south and is distilled to make the feni.
 Kerala being the jewel of India in my eyes also had some of my most loved and missed dishes since departing from this extravagant country. Similar to Goan in the sense of fresh seafood and the usage of coconut, both lining the Arabian Sea, but Kerala also has an abundance of fresh water fish in the lush backwaters throughout the state. The assortment of fruit (mango, jackfruit, coconut, bananas) is to die for growing in almost every backyard not to mention the spices and nuts grown locally. Breakfast dishes such as the dosa served with coconut chutney and sambar were hard to get sick of due to the many varieties, and my favorite Upma. Not far off the Italian polenta, it was made with dry roasted semolina with the addition mustard seeds, ginger, green chilies and curry leaves and was served with bananas. Using the best eating tool, your hand, mash the bananas into it and chow down. Sweet, savoury and filling, good for a long, hard day.
This is a country that with all its diversity it can be overwhelming, but so captivating. There is something new to learn in every city or village, down every street, from every person. The experiences I had, the things I saw, the foods I ate will never be forgotten, for this has taught me so much about myself. It wasn’t just a journey through the mysteriousness of a place so foreign to me, but one inside myself. A piece of my heart was left here to keep close to its bosom, calling me back so I can really try to get further underneath the skin. Mark my words, I will return with a shovel and do my best to dig deeper to its depths. 

A few simple recipes:
1L - 3.5% milk
Juice of 1 lemon
Bring milk and lemon juice almost to a boil until it separates, then strain through a cheesecloth and hang for 30 minutes. Put it into a mold after the majority of the liquid has drained and place a weight on it. Leave for 3-5 hours until the rest of the moisture has been pressed out.
Chapatti – Yeilds 4-5
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup water
Sift the dry ingredients and make a well in the bowl. Add the water and knead for 10 minutes. Take a small ball of the dough and roll out to about a ¼ inch. Cooked on a dry heated iron pan, flip when bubbles appear and rotate to evenly brown.
Cliffs of Varkala, Kerala

Coriander Chutney
1 cup roughly chopped coriander
3 cloves of garlic
1 green chili – to taste
Salt and touch of water
Blend all ingredients together until smooth. Season with salt and lemon juice if necessary.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tubular Dude!

             Four days of constant merciless rain beating down on the saturated earth. Charred sky, lightning ripping across, it was upon me.  I thought I lost the race to the south, the monsoon got here early. Wading through the submerged streets of Kochi for food alone, I remained close to shelter. A leaking bus down to Alleppey and within a couple days the hurricane I learned of passed and Kerala lit up as the jewel of India.
Fresh Karimeen

              The leaves still damp, pale and lucid, the smell of wet earth in the air, the humidity beginning to creep up. The sun had just risen, my eyes still clouded with sleep and I was on a painfully loud boat on my way for breakfast in the backwaters. Rush hour on the canals in the morning was one of the most peaceful looking backdrops penetrated by a cacophony of bells, motors, shouting. Pulled up to port and walked up a dirt path to a local house just up off the bank. A table awaited us with one of the many styles of dosa, a potato curry to ladle over and fresh chai.

              School boy error, I forgot to bring toilet paper. I got to play woodsman and gather some foreign leaves hoping for the best, that I wouldn’t be awkwardly itching my ass for the next week. Our guide, scrawny as can be showed up and my main thought was, how will this guy paddle us around for six hours, but he was a machine. Ushering us to the canoe, we sunk into the seats and embarked on the timeless escape through the small interlocking canals blocked off from the noise of the main routes. We disappeared under the shaded canopy, brushing by coconut and banana trees. The tranquility was soothing, the sounds meditative. The birds above, the gentle lapping of water on the sides of the boat. Simplicity with enormous beauty. Floating by the village life, everyone had their daily chores. One women fishing, the other cleaning them, washing clothes, transporting goods and building barriers for the coming monsoon. Some houses seemed doomed to the inevitable rise of water looking as if they were already sitting perfectly on the surface.

              The opportunity had arisen, it was time to try ‘Toddy’. The locally distilled coconut palm beer. The palm sap ferments quickly due to natural yeasts, up to four percent within a couple of hours. The longer it is left the stronger and more acidic it becomes until your drinking vinegar. It was eleven in the morning and the locals were not being shy about slamming the sweet nectar back. Tucked away in the back room it was poured out of old petrol containers through a sieve into large blue bins, similar to a rain catcher. From there siphoned into washed out wine/liquor bottles or into half liter measuring cups for your drinking pleasure. It tasted almost like a cider with a clean finish of coconut water. Refreshing in the heat, explaining the copious amounts consumed through the day.
              Varkala, Varkala, Varkala… what to say? Only missing a couple criteria, a personal beachside hut and white shimmering sand and I would potentially never leave. The food so fresh, vibrant, the fruit selection incomparable. Jackfruit falling from the trees there for the taking, bananas in the thousands and mangoes and coconuts taunting from higher above. The beach stunning when the sun sets lighting up the cliffs behind bright red. The cliff top lined with restaurants and shops with the waves crashing below, the strong current throwing one though the washing machine a bit making things interesting.

              Time to get gnarly man, this will be tubular bro! I was going to ride some waves and drink some salt water. This was the only remotely productive activity while here. Dragged myself out of bed at the crack of dawn while the waves were prime, it was thirty minutes to our location. It was a battle against the water, paddling myself out and once there it was a waiting game. Patiently judging which one would be it. It could take seconds or minutes, but it seems that you don’t find them. Respecting the force of nature and the serenity of the ocean, the right wave will find you when the time is right. Picking up as much speed as I can while the mountain grows behind me, it picked me up with exhilarating speed launching my forward with it, and most of the time off the board into the churning depth. The few I managed to remain on the board was such an adrenaline pumping, addicting feeling. Similar to carving a mountain for the first time or crossing the wake behind a boat into choppier waters or springing back like a ragdoll after the stomach lifting freefall of a bungee. It’s that feeling of knowing you’ll be doing that again, but note to self, wear a shirt to prevent serious nipple chafing.
              I was running out of time to legally be in this country, so slowly I managed to climb out of the black hole, my sweet little nest embracing my tight, pulling my further into the abyss of paradise. I had a vision of my future self. He walked up and kicked me, “You just got out of Goa, don’t do this again.”
              I packed my bags and left the next day, looking back the whole way. Onwards to Kanyakumari, the tip of the iceberg, where three seas meet and my turning point back to the north following the east coast.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

It's A Trap

             I can hear the faint whispers of the lives of thousands lured here and the many who were snared and never left. Come in, don’t worry, slip off the sandals, have a drink, smoke a joint, breathe in the air. Slowly becoming enshrouded by these emerald wisps of a maiden imprisoning me in this forbidden fortress, where no desire goes unquenched.

King of Good Times
              Goa… as almost all beach havens act as an opium den, the doors always open, but no one ever wants to leave. Their fix is always ever present, just around the corner. Whether it be something to keep you up until daybreak for the heart pumping trance scene, or something to bring you down to level yourself out. The taste of mind blurring nectar or the crisp sobering blood of a coconut. The bronzing heat of the sun or the saltiness of the tepid water. The fragrant intensity of the spices and chilies or the fresh fruits of the sea. Everything within reach.
              I arrived in Anjuna, the northern part of the state and was checking into prison. Tall barbed wire fences towering above me, barred windows and a mug shot to not be forgotten. Sharing a cell with another nine inmates, we were lucky security was lax leaving us to our own devices. Beer cooler in the lounge and the charas flowed in and out with ease. I lost track of time and days as they no longer had meaning, they began to follow me and trail behind. Floating down a river of cheap booze days blended into one another, when one ended and the next began became unapparent. Was the sun coming up or going down? Motivation became non-existent to the point where the simplest task would take days and finally upon completion it felt like a great victory, as if Troy was breached. It traps you without your own knowledge of it and when it is realized it’s too late… you’re in.
Crab Xec Xec
              I knew breaking out of prison wouldn’t be a simple task, but when the gates never locked one would think it couldn’t be a herculean task either. I planned my escape a few times, each time going to bed thinking tomorrow will be the day. It was always tomorrow, then the day after that. Eventually the day came and with the help of a friend met behind the bars we broke free with Queens, ‘I want to break free’ playing behind us. We ran to the capital, Panjim to lay low for a couple days.

              Working our way to the southern border, one last stop, Palolem. About two kilometers of golden sand saturated with restaurants, sun beds, shops, beach shacks and long stayers. Perfect place to blend in, but the dogs were on to us. By day they were calm trying to beat the heat, but at night they picked up your scent. They would gather in packs to intimidate and attempt a few lunges when they felt lucky.
              It was time to make a final run for it before Goa consumed me, but it was an internal struggle, being pulled in both directions. The water dragged me in every time the increasing heat began to boil my blood, the cheap rum and Kingfisher still flowing through my veins. Anything I need is within my grasp. Why should I leave, life here is cheap and easy, no worries. Hakuna matata!
              Not sure what it was, definitely not the angel on my shoulder because he was taken out years ago, but something broadsided me, knocking me back on my ass. Get out of here or you’ll become one of them, a permanent bum of the beach. I thought what’s so wrong with that, I could do this. Wait, I have too much left to do still, too much to see, too much to eat. I can’t get snared and become a sun wrinkled fixture on the beach….. yet!

Friday, 30 May 2014

Week Six Transition

             It has been six weeks… India… things have changed. Something at first turned me away from this country, an extreme culture shock. I didn’t think I would be upset to leave, or really want to return. Still just under the surface of a country that would take a lifetime to fully understand, I felt different. Maybe I just relaxed a little more, leaning back into the life of travel, accepting the good with the bad. Opened my eyes, mind and heart to it, seeing more of what’s below the hardened resilient exterior of this extravagant subcontinent. 
Street snack

              Fifteen hours, it was midafternoon, stifling hot with glutinous humidity, I pulled into Mumbai. The home of Bollywood, millions of people, the financial and commercial city of India and one the biggest slums in the world. Many of the paradoxes of this vast country can be seen here exploring this concrete jungle.
              Stiff and anxious to stretch my legs, I left the station, over a ditch to the street and made my way to the inner city train lines. Hanging out the side of the carriage, trying to catch the breeze, I prepared for what I was expecting to be a chaotic experience. It was anything but, relaxing for me, I was drawn to this place. I’m sure reading Shantaram at the time didn’t help. The famous backpacker novel of India set in Mumbai. I must have taken a step back though as I began to embrace the culture and people as they grew on me during the previous weeks going along for the ride. It was a beautiful city, the coastline of the harbour, Chowpatti, watching the masses go about their busy lives and the slums of Dharavi.

              I made it down to the south of the island city, Colaba, and checked into the India Guest House. Cheapest I could find with a room smaller than most jail cells, still more than I need. The weight of the heat bearing down on me, I went down to the waterfront. A place many come to sit and watch the day turn to night as the boats light up the black water.

Bhel Puri
 As the sun went down I realized I’d been in transit all day and hadn’t eaten, and some of the best chaat (snacks) I’ve had awaited me. Aimlessly strolling into the streets, I found an evening market around the block. The curious browsing began, my kind of shopping. Bhajiya pav, onion bhaji on a bun with chili sauce. Aloo pav, fried potato done the same. I lean towards the Bhajia pav with some fried potato and spinach crammed in. Raw sprout salads being tossed up served in a paper roll, dosas being spread on griddles. On a small metal dish two samosas crushed with a chickpea puree ladled over topped with diced onion, tomato, cilantro, chaat masala, and two sauces, one sweet and the other a chili sauce. Bhel puri, made of puffed rice. Plopping my ass down a curb to digest and watch the flow of life here, shopping, eating, haggling, drinking chai, bikes weaving, I needed some dessert. Fruit stands with their displays so fresh and vibrant, and mango season was just beginning. Mango and jackfruit it was.
              If you walk around long enough in the Colaba area you’re bound to be asked to be an extra in a Bollywood movie. For five hundred rupees and a long day, they will dress you up and have a look behind the scenes. As I was wandering around looking for a tour office I was asked to help with a movie set in the forties. Unfortunately I had a ticket, beach bound for Goa and a tour of Dharavi.
              Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in the world, home to around one million people, no way of really knowing, was an eye opening experience to happiness with so little. Even poverty stricken pride was shown in everything thing they owned and did. Determination in their faces overcoming what most could not bear. Smiles, handshakes, and head bobbles from everyone as they went about their lives, children following us through the alleys. Small businesses with what seemed like a community effort, drying chilies, or making pottery and running their homemade kilns. A scorching job in the already sweltering heat. Small markets set out on plastic on the ground selling produce, fish or shrimp constantly fanning to keep the flies away from their goods. I stopped for a chai and omelette creating I think a surprised crowd. I don’t think many stop for breakfast.
              This was an experience I’m walking away from with a new outlook on what’s important. A souvenir that can never be lost. This city has left a lasting impression on me, a city with many layers like the country it’s in, and I now look forward to dig into them further.


Friday, 16 May 2014

Dune... My Version

4:30 am, my eyes shoot open, soaked in sweat, bloated and scorching flames from the pits of hell surging through my chest. Reassuring myself that I just ate way too much spicy food after my strong bhang lassi and that it would pass, I went to the rooftop in an attempt to cool down, walk it off. Stepping onto the rooftop into the chilled desert breeze, taking deep breaths of the fresh air trying to slow the rapid throbbing of my heart. Stepping onto another planet. A dusty and dry world with who knows what lurking in its arid landscape spanning the horizon. Behind stood the mighty living fort projecting its golden hue as the sun crept up bringing it to life. Jaisalmer, a place of a different time.

 At first feeling slightly relieved, my body was just giving me a moment of peace before it began. Mad dash to the washroom alleviating the tension in my stomach, I hoped that it was over, but unfortunately I knew better. I had just opened the floodgates to an eight hour onslaught, violent and viscous as a brutal war was waged inside. I was in dire need of the Magic School Bus. With futile attempts to keep hydrated, dry heaves ensued, straining the muscles throughout my body. Shortly after whatever was in me was winning and hasty decisions had to be made, choosing where the Ganga was coming from first. In between bouts I curled into the fetal position on the cold tile floor, unable and knowing there was no real point in going far. First case of 'Delhi Belly'.
              Based on my condition and with better sense, I probably should have and was recommended to cancel the camel safari I had planned that afternoon. I tend not to listen to those voices, lacking what some might call ‘better judgement’ in these situations. Plus, this is why I came, I couldn’t let it win.

              2:00 pm, I made it alive, extremely dehydrated and in one hour trekking in the blazing heat of the Thar desert on camelback. Finally managing to keep water in my system and some Imodium with it, it was time to go. Forty-five minute ride into a new part of the world to where my camel awaited me. Raja. Tying up the bandana, I threw my leg over into the awkward wide stance that took a little getting used to. I would be walking funny after this. Grasping the stick used as a handle, Raja rose to his full height and the ball busting ramble through the serenely barren wasteland began. A great expanse of nothingness, yet somehow filled with life. Villages survived and maintained, flora emerged through the cracked landscape and the Indian gazelles galloped through the parched landscape.

              Moving along at a slow pace, taking in the beauty and peace of the quiet isolation, seeing for miles, no one in sight. Something about it was therapeutic, listening to the wind sweeping through taking your thoughts and worries with it. The dunes resembling an oasis pond rippling out as Raja jumped in like a pebble being thrown. In the distance on the skyline a gypsy village rose from the sea of bronze stretched out before me. As soon as we were sighted, the children dashed towards us as if protecting against invaders. Stopping only a dozen feet from the august creatures of the old world, as they lowered us to the ground. Smiles spread across their faces, waving vigorously, yelling ‘Hello’ trying to be louder than the other. Jovial and energetic, wanting nothing but pictures and chocolate, as they fought each other for the first shot, posing for the camera. Using me as a jungle gym, climbing onto my back, hanging off my arms rendering me immobile as I dragged half a dozen around attempting to make it back to my camel. A struggle, but I made it and handed out the mere three candies I had which started a lightning storm between them taking the attention off me so I could escape into the vacant expanse.

              As the sun set making the sky look ablaze, stepping to the summit of a dune, a shack appeared. Camp for the night, lowered to the ground, my knees almost buckling for the first few strides. Enjoying the surprisingly cool desert breeze as the sun crept down, dinner was prepared and I was starving. Over hot coals rice, aloo gobi, mixed veg curry and chapatti cooked on searing rocks. This proves fancy tools aren’t required to make phenomenal meals. Dragging my cot to the center of the dunes underneath the sheet of glass. I thought I saw clear skies in Muskoka, but nothing like this. Cloudless, stars lighting up the ocean of black as I slowly drifted off. 
              Awoken by the sun ascending behind me and the chilling wind sweeping across the ever-changing terrain. Gathering the courage to step into the frozen sand, the sun rose from beneath the horizon, everything shimmering gold. Taken back, it was mesmerizing, lost in a gaze. A yell for breakfast snapped me out of it. Hard-boiled eggs, toast, jam and chai, it was time to ship out. Raja stood up and began a trot back to the jeep off this planet.  
Life in the desert was hard but beautiful, isolated placidity. Sitting back in utter relaxation moving with the momentum of the camel, taking in the minutes as they were my last. I couldn’t forget this quiet peace, surrounded by nothing but what I looked for.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Blinded by the Colour - Holi 2014

           The pink city, or in my opinion more brown than anything, but hey, who am I to judge. Jaipur, for me was rather uneventful and uninteresting compared to the many other cities in the desert state of Rajasthan. Stunningly bright colours bouncing off the light brown sand, saris flowing in the dry breeze throughout the magnificent state, rich with history of invasion and conquering, full of culture, tradition, hospitality and some succulent North Indian food. But here, to brighten Jaipur for me, I was here for the monumental spring festival, Holi, celebrated almost country wide and now throughout the world. The festival of colour and love is on the last full moon of winter signifying the coming of spring, and for the most part an anarchy of colour.

              I woke in a sweat, wide eyed as if a shot of adrenaline was pumped into my heart bringing me back from the cusp of an overdose. I could feel the sweat beading down off my chin on to my lap, the monotonous drone of the fan spinning, the temperature slowly rising, I had to get out. I knew it was all going to begin soon and I didn’t know if I was ready. Armed with a pump action water gun loaded with blue dye and five bags of paint, I wasn’t sure if it was enough, was I going unprepared. How much is enough when it’s every man, woman and child for themselves in the lawlessness of the riotous streets. Gathering the troops on the rooftop that were as much enemy as friend in this, we passed through the front doors into city streets where it all began.

              Coming at us from all angles, I was locked and loaded deciding which one to shoot first.  Drawing first blood from a distance the rickshaw drivers with handfuls of paint, too many, just kept coming. Happy Holi, and I was hit. Smearing the powdered paint into my face, I returned the favour. Loading up the rickshaw with all ten of our squadron, I hung off the back acting as our turret firing at oncoming motorists. No one was safe… unless my cheap gun couldn’t reach. Bombs had been dropped left and right through the city leaving walls, cars, cows and people massacred with the coloured shrapnel. Stepping out into the mayhem, immediately being swarmed by locals, I was lost in a cloud of dust and transformed into a tie-dye smurf before long as we walked the old city. Rescuing a few lone soldiers along the way from the opportunistic groping hands, we regrouped at our hostel to figure out our next plan of attack.

              Decisions made, troops rallied, the infiltration of an outdoor rave was our next target. Little did I know upon entering the warzone, the mayhem was only truly beginning and the best was yet to come in the following hours. In need of some liquid motivation, we found the bar. Going straight to my head making short work of a few with so little in my stomach, I was anxious to get to the heart of the storm. Attacked from all angles, a free for all, I was a complete different colour at what seemed like five minute intervals. Drenched from top to bottom, temporarily blinded by the few who would forget that I had eyes when they smothered my face with paint, rendering me only capable of drinking while I waited for my vision to return. Moving my feet and arms imitating the locals dancing as camouflage as I walked through the mist sprinkler to remove some of the layers of colour was a poor, ill-fated attempt. Within seconds of stepping out of the mist, I was a target. If I didn’t stick out enough already, a reasonably clean face, free of colour brought them swarming.

As the sun retreated over the horizon peace was declared and the music brought to a halt. I’d ingested enough paint to piss a rainbow and in dire need of a proper meal and shower to refuel and calm the soul. Watching the colour run off into the drain, it looked like I may have slaughtered the teletubbies, left with wounds of dyed skin and a green scalp. It was a city wide blitz leaving its mark on me for the remainder of my days. A festival like no other, never to be forgotten.