India is a severe and unforgiving place; the disintegrating roads and buildings, the chaos of traffic, the dirt and pollution, the extreme poverty. Even the sacred cows, who could be very happy about not being eaten, stand on piles of litter eating the rotting refuse. Whole families have made their homes on the pavements and send their kids into the traffic to beg for a few Rupees.

Living on the street

Living on the street

Sure there are beautiful temples and colourful saris, a vibrancy and buzz of people, not to mention Bollywood movies; but the reality cannot be hidden, and we had seen enough (and had enough curry). So we cut our time short and headed to Bali, via Singapore.

Begging street children

Begging street children

I did not realise how extreme the contrast would be. I was shocked. The immigration hall at Singapore Airport was so immaculately clean you could have licked its shiny marble floors. In fact I was so excited by the change in our circumstances, I was nearly tempted to do just this! And this was just the start.

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Beautiful Singapore orchid

Beautiful Singapore orchid

Stunning Singapore orchid

Stunning Singapore orchid

The taxis are air-conditioned, the roads are lined with manicured gardens, and the high-rises are painted. There is no litter. Anywhere. The public toilets function, the buses are efficient and easy to use. The architecture…well the architecture is spectacular! And you can eat, without fear!

Singapore architecture

Singapore architecture

Singapore architecture

Singapore architecture

Crime is low, laughable by South African standards. A police sign was placed outside a high-rise complex. A bicycle had been stolen here on a particular day and the police were looking for information from the public. That’s right folks; one bicycle stolen…and the police looking for information. I’m in awe.
CRIME ALERT 20131126_141007

SINGAPORE: 25-11-2013

We made our way, first by Tuk-tuk, then on foot through the grimy backstreets of the Kwatwaria Sara district of New Delhi. We clearly did not fit in here and had to ask numerous times for directions. Where were we going, you might well ask? Well we were on our way to consult a Nadi Astrology leaf reader.
Apparently about 2000 years ago 18 Hindu sages had divine revelations, which they recorded on a series of palm leaves. That is, they wrote down the past, present and future of all humans on old palm leaves!
Eventually we found ourselves at a beauty salon, which seemed to be our address, and just next door we noticed an open door and a small waiting room. With gestures we were asked to remove our shoes and take a seat inside. The man, who seemed to be in charge, asked us some questions in Hindi, but we could make no sense of anything until a friendly man, sitting with his brother in the waiting room, kindly translated for us.

In the waiting room

In the waiting room

The procedure was that the assistant would take our thumb print and name, and with this information, would see if our leaves could be found. We were told that not everyone’s leaf is found, only those destined to know about their records and only when the time is right!

‘By your Thumb – impression (Gents Right & Ladies Left thumb), we predict by seeing ancient palm leaves …about you, your family & future Ups & Downs as accurate and in Detail.’

After our prints were taken in purple ink, we were given a small pamphlet to read. I was astounded to discover the full extent of what a reading would reveal. To list just a few:

* About Brothers and Sisters, Benefits and Problems from them.
* Dangers and Difficulties in life & about the consultants courage in detail.
* Diseases, Debts, Litigation, Enemies when will these problems arise and when will disappear as accurate & in detail
*The Life Longevity of the consultants Father, about getting father’s properties.
*The consultants Life Longevity, How long will be the life, at which period the danger and problem will arise, when death will occur in detail.

The assistant returned to announce Stefan’s leaf had been found, the brothers grinned excitedly at this news. But this was not good enough for Stefan. “Where is it?” he asked.
“He wants to know where it is, he wants to see it?” the brothers translated for us.
The assistant looked slightly annoyed and disappeared again. After 10 minutes he reappeared with what looked like a large closed fan.

Purple thumb prints

Purple thumb prints

Palm leaves with Stefan's destiny

Palm leaves with Stefan’s destiny

He unwound a long piece of rope holding together a bundle of about 50 palm leaves sandwiched between two pieces of wood, and opened it up at a leaf that seemed quite random to us. But this particular leaf, we were told, was Stefan’s. It was covered in a small, ancient Tamil script. As there was no English translator available, he was told to return the first week of December.
“But we won’t be here then. I asked for an English reading when I phoned.” Said Stefan annoyed. “How come they couldn’t predict that they would need an English translator here today.” He said to me disappointed.
“Today No English. You phone.” He was handed a business card with a number written on the back. “That number you say when phone.”
“And what about me?” I asked. I also wanted my leaf to be found. If for no other reason than to say they found it. Once again the assistant disappeared. It was a very tense 15 minute wait!
“He found your leaf too! You very lucky!” said the thrilled brothers when he returned. I too was given a business card with a number written on the back. And for a few seconds I did indeed feel very lucky. Whether we will ever discover the rest of our destiny, I don’t know. But having read through that pamphlet I am not too sure I want to!

LESSON LEARNT
It’s better to turn over a new leaf than an old leaf.

NEW DELHI, INDIA: 24-11-2013

We were off to Agra, travelling by private taxi, to see the Taj and a few other tourist traps. I asked our driver to stop at an ATM before dropping us off at the Taj. He obliged by stopping at a seemingly random spot to ask for directions from a neatly dressed man standing on the side of the road. They exchanged a few words in Hindi before the man hopped in to show us the way.
He turned to me to ask if he could accompany us as our guide to the Taj.
I could not believe our luck! You ask for an ATM and they throw in a fully qualified guide to boot.
“No thank you”, I replied with a smile.
“But sir I show you and explain you the wonderful history and treasures of the Taj…” he fired the first volley.
Unbeknownst to him, I was ready to stave off his assault on my right of refusal.
“Do you know who I am ?” I asked, my voice on the edge of indignant.
I gave him a few seconds to stare at me, befuddled by this break of a century old protocol, before I offered him some sweet release.
“I am Doctor Meyer from South Africa, Professor in Indian history and archaeology. I know everything . This is the stuff I teach my students every day.” I said authoritatively, eager to hear his answer.
To my surprise he took this bold statement in his stride.
“Excuse me sir, but at the Taj there’s a long queue for tourist to get ticket, two hours you can wait – but if you go with me, we go in front of queue,” came his quick rebuff.
After many more attempts he eventually gave up and allowed us to continue unguided.

Taj

two radiant beauties

Needless to say, when we got out of the taxi we were accosted by a host of guides trying to sell their services, but we evaded them by hopping onto a nearby golf cart and scooted off to the gate, happy to leave them in our dust – for a moment at least.
At the ticket office there were two ticket kiosks, one for locals and one for tourists or “high value” tickets costing 35x the price of the local ticket. There was nobody at all at the “high value” ticket counter, so we quickly bought our tickets, but as we made our way to the security check point we were approached by two young gentlemen who kindly showed us to a table where complimentary water and shoe covers were given as part of the “high value” ticket.
Then the older, smarter looking one proudly showed us his official-looking card and explained how all the other guides who had approached us in the parking lot were fake, and that their services as qualified tour guides were offered free, as part of the “high value” ticket too.
I looked at him with a skeptic grin and asked, “Tell me, how many rupees is free ?” His younger, less-experienced colleague, eager to impress his senior, blurted out, “Two hundred and fifty rupees sir!”.

Taj2a

exquisite relief on the Taj

AGRA, INDIA: 20-11-2013

It was dusk, the streets were crowded, the temples were lit up with multi-coloured lights, and we were pushed and jostled along with the crowds.

Prem Mandir temple, Vrindivan

Prem Mandir temple, Vrindivan

Prem Mandir temple

Prem Mandir temple

Being easily recognisable as tourists, we quickly became the target of beggars and vendors, who desperately tried to strike up a deal with us. Groups of girls stared at Stefan and giggled, begging children clung onto my arms.

It was time to get off this road; so we walked down a shabby, dusty side-alley through a security controlled entrance.
The gardens here were surprisingly well-maintained with neatly cut hedges. The paths were lit by flickering lights and in the distance we could hear a faint melody. We followed the strains of singing voices and the garden opened up into a large lawn where people, dressed in long flowing garments, were seated cross-legged.

Hare Krishna devotees

Hare Krishna devotees

They were arranged in a semicircle around an Indian Guru singing;
Hare Krishna…Hare Krishna…
With nodding heads and serene faces they chanted softly and melodically.
…Krishna Krishna…Hare Hare…
It was such a respite from where we had just been, that I found myself drawing closer.
…Hare Rama…Hare Rama…
Accompanied by a beating drum the Guru chanted and the chorus of devotees  replied.
…Rama Rama…Hare Hare…
The same melody, the same words, repeated again and again.
…Hare Krishna… Hare Krishna…
Like a scene from the from the sixties, all peace and love and harmony.
And as the chant continued, so more and more  joined the group.
…Krishna Krishna…
The volume of the chant swelled.
It was strangely urging, almost addictive.
…Hare Hare…
All I had to do was take off my shoes, sit on the lawn, nod along.
…Hare Rama…Hare Rama…
I could sing the words, the melody was simple.
…Rama Rama…
But my English reserve held me back…

When an hour had passed and they were still “Hare Krishna-ing” to the same tune,
I realised I did just not have the serenity or patience.
I was ready to hit the street again.
…Hurry Hurry…

LESSON LEARNT
Calm is one step away from chaos.

VRINDAVAN, INDIA: 17-11-2013

Who would have thought that travelling around India would be more thrilling than any Disney World ride?
After all, what could be more exciting than crossing two lanes of on-coming traffic in a rickshaw, or passing between a truck and a bus while in a tuk-tuk on a one-lane road? How about driving the wrong way up a road at night while watching the fast approaching headlights of a car? That sure can make your hair stand on end!

terror of the tuk-tuk

terror of the tuk-tuk

But that’s not all; add pedestrians (a lot) and animals (a number of species) into the mix. Decorated white cows amble into the road as they please, herds of buffalo’s bring all traffic to a grinding halt, pigs squeal and sprint away and goats seem to be incredibly nimble at getting out the way fast. Many dogs, I have noticed, have only three legs, a testimony of a narrow escape. Camels and horses pulling carts and donkeys with massive loads, compete for space on the road.

Along the dusty fringe of the roads there is a bustle of activity as hundreds of women in colourful sari’s, men in dhoti’s and school children, in spotlessly clean white pants and shoes, make their way between the busy street vendors and road traffic.
Finally add noise; a cacophony of hooters, the rumblings and grumblings of traffic, the shouting vendors and whistling of traffic cops; and you in for one hell of a ride!

rickshaw ride, I'm still alive!

rickshaw ride, I’m still alive!

LESSON LEARNT
Tuk-tuk’s are more terrifying than tigers.

VRINDAVAN, INDIA: 18-11-2013

We decided to book a number of ‘experiences’ while staying at the Sapana Village Lodge near the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. We chose an elephant ride, a canoe down the river, a jungle walk and a visit to the local village. Everything was more-or-less as I expected, that was until today; the jungle walk.
It was a short walk from the river bridge to the jungle. At a clearing we stopped briefly for what I thought was to be an introduction to the jungle but turned out to be a security briefing.
“We have four very dangerous animals here.” Our guide commenced, holding out four fingers, “and you need to know what to do if you meet any of them.”
What? Oh sh** , I never read the small print.
“Oh we know,” said Stefan gleefully.
“You know?” asked the guide surprised.
“Of course” said Stefan confidently, “You hold them back with your stick while we run!”
“AAhhaahaha!” laughed the guide flinging his head back in mirth.
Hilarious,  I thought.

Dangerous jungle

Dangerous jungle

“The first is rhino. If you see rhino you run, but not in straight line. You run zigzag. Rhino run fast, but not turn sudden, he too big. Then you climb tree, not too small.  At least this high.” he demonstrated with an outstretched arm.  “You keep still, he can smell but can’t see well.”
Zigzag, find tree. This could be difficult I thought looking at the thick undergrowth and unclimbable trees around us.
“Second is wild elephant, very dangerous. You know he’s wild if he has no chain round neck.” said the guide.
“Or if there are no people on his back.” laughed Stefan.
“AAhhaahaha!” laughed the guide.
So NOT funny, I thought.
“If you see one you change direction quick. Get out of way. Luckily they very big so you can see them.” said the guide.
Lucky they are big? I was confused.
“The third is black bear.” said the guide
“You have bears here?” said Stefan excited by the inclusion of this unexpected dangerous animal.
“Yes, like panda, but black. If you see bear, you stay in group. Do not run. I hit with stick.” He held up the stick he was carrying.
I had mistaken his bamboo stick for a walking stick not a weapon of self-defence.
“But you can’t hit anywhere, he not feel on skin, you hit on nose.”
Hit bear on nose with stick. I made a mental note.
“Last, most dangerous,” said the guide pausing, “Bengali tiger.”
TIGER!!!! I felt weak.
“I thought there were no tigers here,” said Stefan, his eyes sparkling with excitement.
“Of course there is tigers. But you don’t see him, he hide in long grass, he see you first. If you see him, you stare at tiger, in eyes.” He widened his eyes and pointed at them dramatically. “Never, never turn back on tiger. Then slowly you step away. No run. He can run. He can catch. No climb. He can climb. He can catch.”
Stare at tiger, do not climb, he can catch. I desperately tried to remember.
“Have people been attacked by tigers?” asked Stefan.
Shuddup, shuddup, I don’t want to know, I thought.
“Yes, this year, two people.”
“I want to see a tiger.” said Stefan.
Nooo, you don’t I screamed inside.
“Has anyone been attacked by a tiger while on an elephant?” asked Stefan.
“Yes, mahout, elephant driver, was taken by tiger, tiger jump right up on elephant. There were tourists also on elephant.”
It took all my restraint not to cover up my ears and make loud noises so that I could hear no more. Was it run from a bear or elephant? Climb or stay still for a tiger? And can the rhino smell or see? What about the stick? I have no stick!! My mind was in a whirl and my imagination far too vivid. I remembered exactly why I avoided game walks in South African wildlife reserves. I just don’t like the thought of having to outrun, outclimb or outstare wild animals in order to survive.
“I don’t think I want to go anymore.” I whispered to Stefan.
“Are you scared?” he asked loudly. I nodded. “Look you’ve made her scared now.” He told the guide smiling.
“Don’t you worry ma’am, we will protect you.” he laughed.

We will protect you ma'am.

We will protect you ma’am.

So with two small Nepalese men ‘armed’ with bamboo sticks we headed straight into the dangerous jungle. I looked neither right nor left hoping not to see anything. The guide climbed trees and took us down overgrown paths trying to find us a dangerous animal. But he was either inexperienced or unlucky, which, I really did not mind; as I was praying we would see nothing, nothing at all. We did see a wild elephant in the very far distance, and the paw print of a tiger on the river bank. The circumference of the print was carefully measured and doubled (or trebled?) with a jungle calculator (a long piece of grass) to determine the height of the tiger. It was big!

Searching for dangerous animals

Searching for dangerous animals

Calculating the tiger height from a paw print

Calculating the tiger height from a paw print

We also saw a common cobra snake skin, some pretty spotted deer and monkeys. And Stefan was bitten (sucked?) by three leeches. (Hee-hee)
But the nicest thing I saw, by far, was a delicate white orchid growing high up in a tree. It was just so ‘non-dangerous’.

LESSON LEARNT
Always read the small print.

CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK: NEPAL
08-11-2013

When you enter Nepal at Kathmandu airport, you will find a  number of information signs have been placed along the walkway. Hooting, you are informed, is a way that the Nepalese show their joy. If this is true, then the Nepalese are one joyful nation; for the minute you step out of the airport, your ears are assailed with the sounds of blaring and on-going hooting. The next thing you cannot fail to notice, is the seemingly chaotic movement of vehicles and people all around you. There seems to be a keep left traffic rule, but that is about it. The drivers drive without hesitation and hoot to make their presence known to other cars, people, motorcycles, dogs, rickshaws, buses, idiot tourists and cows. They are highly skilled at negotiating the smallest spaces, avoiding potholes and quick bursts of joyful hooting.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Accommodation consists of cramped apartment blocks, semi-complete or in disrepair; poverty and decay are in evidence everywhere. Public areas are littered and the air is polluted with dust and car fumes, many people walk around wearing masks. But the streets are lined with neat shops and the people are friendly and polite. Surprisingly there are some well-kept courtyard restaurants just a few steps from the frenetic energy of the street , where you can find some welcome relief and refreshment.

wiring Kathmandu style

wiring Kathmandu style

fixing wires

Nepalese cable guy

There are masses of tangled wires dangling overhead, an electrical nightmare; but no problem for the enterprising Nepalese. They simply tie up the wires in bundles when they droop too low to the ground. All that is needed is a man on a ladder and six men to hold it!

LESSON LEARNT
Consideration trumps road rules to keep the traffic moving.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL : 03-11-2013

Living up to expectations, Kathmandu continues to offer little surprises to the alert observer. We were travelling by taxi to view a temple, when we drove past a shop that caught my eye; prompting me to instruct our driver to make a quick stop. The following sign was proudly proclaiming a seemingly innovative and progressive marketing strategy; Nepal’s first online meat shop.
Online-meat2
But my mind boggles when I try to work through the technical aspects of the enterprise. On second thoughts the whole thing could simply be a misprint – the sign should have read Nepal’s first in-line meat shop.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL: 04-11-2013

We finished off our  five-month-first-world-tour with a high tech whiz around the well-manicured streets of Paris on our Segways.  And then it was off to start the real adventure – Nepal and beyond…

Paris_Segway

A quick whizz through the streets of Paris

Suffice to say, we braced ourselves for a culture shock. Personally Europe was just too familiar and easy, culminating in my quip about London seeming quite similar Cape Town – much to the chagrin of my “clean sister” (skoonsuster) who was acting as our city guide.
On our way to our hotel, we found ourselves spellbound in a cramped mini-bus, slowly hustling it’s way through the noise and dust of Kathmandu.  Inevitably my senses were drawn to  the chaos and decay – and that got me thinking of Venice. Don’t get me wrong, Venice came with all the romantic wrapping as promised in the brochures, yet it was also a portrait of decay, but  it was wrapped in a veil of enchantment.

Venice1

Chic decay…

Venice2

.. the Venician way

When I questioned our gondolier about the apparent state of disrepair that was quite pervasive, he confirmed that any restoration or repairs to private property could only be done at a time dictated by committee.

Chaos and decay

Chaos and decay

I guess in Kathmandu there is also an appropriate time for doing restoration and repair; no sooner than  absolutely necessary.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL: 03-11-2013

How far you have been
Oh, little black car!
You’ve driven with oompa
So very, very far. (16 000 kilometres!)

Our little French car

Our little French car

A dint in Croatia
A puncture in Greece
You drank lots of diesel
But needed no grease.

You kept on the road
You found the right track
And when we’ve been uncertain
You’ve even turned back.

You sailed on the ferries
Across many a sea
You drove through the dirt
But you did it with glee.

You look a bit grimy
A bit worse for wear
But your spirit is strong
And we’ll miss you, it’s clear.

For now we must carry
Our bags and our books
And use public transport
To explore other nooks.

So we wish you good luck
And hope that you find
A special new owner
Who’s careful and kind.

PARIS, FRANCE: 29-10-2013