My father was from a tiny island on the south coast of Iceland where men proudly call themselves the first and most original Icelanders, since Iceland is their biggest colony. My father was born January 7th 1952 and both my grandparents were born January 11th, so January seemed like the best time to go and visit their communal grave. The cemetery in Heimaey is always lit up with festive lights until January 23rd, the anniversary of the 1973 volcanic eruption start date. If only everyone could Rest In Peace in such a paradise as this.
I arrived in a place that felt like India and Saudia Arabia had collided. As a traveller, I experienced it the same way I experienced Lagos, an overwhelming, chaotic, crowded filth of a poverty stricken, mega city. It was a place where people’s faces were a blend of Indian and South East Asia, all the while still feeling a little middle eastern. I saw some Burmese faces, smelled clove cigarettes, and ate things authentically Bangla that I swore I had eaten in Mumbai. The alphabet had changed from Hindi and all English had been subtly dropped, even the numbers didn’t make sense.
The rickshaws were actually the tricycle pedal bikes, where anyone seated looked like a regal passenger endorsing modern human (paid) slavery. The Indian style rickshaws had been downgraded to dull, green cages. I didn’t understand why until I rode in one, and realised that it was safer to be locked in from the crowded streets and angry pedestrians and over-worked human pack donkeys.
They have Uber here, on motorcycles, and I took an 8 km ride across town as someone’s first ride, breaking in his brand-new passenger helmet. He was nervous, not only because he was new on the job, but because I was the only foreigner for miles, a female, and directing him where to go since he had no idea and hadn’t thought to get a phone holster for his bike to follow directions.
I took a sunset boat ride on the Buriganga river, which was, without exaggerating, as black as tar. Only the setting sun put a twinkle of lightness in the water, which was the top layer of oil and petrol shimmering like a greasy rainbow. I suddenly became hyper aware of the fact that I don’t have black hair, and being brunette with any sun kissed streaks meant I wasn´t local. I was a foreigner, no matter what I wore, and covering my hair wasn´t enough since the tone of tanned skin isn’t the same as having dark skin. I couchsurfed with a much whiter, larger Turkish man, but luckily for me, he had two local Bengali friends to show me around while he worked, and their presence made me feel a little less noticeable.
They have a funny way of peeing, the men do. They squat like a female and wee with their little man out of sight, but I wondered then if they also deal with the same splatter back problem women do when squatting too close to the ground to be discrete. I visited the deserted town of Panam and took another sunset boat trip where we couldnt see the sun and had to row ourselves. That was when I realised two out of four of us were afraid of water and didnt know how to swim. That kind of stuff doesn´t get lost in translation no matter how little we say, but I sort of managed to make everyone relax and laugh about it.
I took Uber motorcycles everywhere I needed to get to in Dhaka, including the zoo where I finally saw a Royal Bengal tiger. Tourists normally need travel permits or militarized escorts to leave the capital, and traveling for run around election time as a foreigner was a big no no, so there wasn´t much chance to try and go trek for one in the wild.
I saw the old part of town and some markets and mosques, but was most impressed by the National Parliament house – it looked like something either from former Yogoslavia´s communist past or out of the future, George Orwell 1984 style, with security around it tight enough to impress the US Embassy. I walked around worried about where I could look, walk and barely mustered up the courage to take a photo, and then realised the satellites and internet signals around the parliament weren´t normal; google maps located me in a totally different part of town and I wasn´t able to order my uber motorcycle to where I was actually standing.
A fun fact about the Bengali language: In English, its simple and all to have just cousins as a word for male and female relatives, and in Icelandic, we don’t even differentiate between an aunty, cousin or niece, they’re just all cousins. In Bangla language, they refer to an aunty from your moms side totally differently than an aunty from your dads side, and same for a paternal or maternal uncle. Mama is the word for your moms brother, which still makes me snicker.
A very useful fact for overland travelers to Bangladesh: visa on arrival from Kolkata to Dhaka thru the Benapole border is not possible during election time, and sometimes possible at other times. I was refused entry, blatantly stamped in my passport, after being told to go there from the Bangla authorities in Kolkata. But the immigration officers at the land border told me I wouldn´t receive the visa on arrival there because of elections, but I could fly from Kolkata to Dhaka and get the VOA at the airport, even though the elections are mainly happening in and around the capital. I took the risk of traveling back to Kolkata Airport and buying a one way flight (my return flight thru Delhi and back to Iceland was from Dhaka so I figured that was a strong argument to have after already landing in Dhaka) to Bangladesh, only to buy toyed for another hour about the difficulties of getting a visa during election time. My couchsurfing host was Turkish, which the authorities didn´t love, but the final yes came from a muslim Bangladeshi man named Salman, named after Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman empire in the 1500´s.
Leaving Goa wasn´t easy, but it was time to move. I missed traveling, the moving around with a backpack kind of traveling. I was off to Calcutta, one of those far away places that sounds like it only exists in colonial history, but it exists today as Kolkata, a city beating with West Bengal life so strongly that only the architecture reminds you it was once the capital of British India.
I arrived at the airport late at night, to a dysfunctional system of prepaid taxis. There were as many taxis curbside as people that needed rides, but one or two police guys in an office box had to get our names, numbers and destinations printed out and take payment from a long line of tired travelers. An hour later I was finally paired up to a driver that took me to the only hotel in the city that somewhat resembled a backpackers – Kolkata Backpackers Bed and Breakfast. It was more like a homestay, or paid couchsurfing, and the rooftop breakfast was worth every penny.
If you come to Kolkata for one reason only, let it be the food. Flury´s bakery, est. 1927, is a tearoom that sells pastries on par with a Parisienne patisserie. I found a bar called Someplace Else that certainly felt like someplace in Ireland, and two incredible restaurants: Peter Cat and Mocambo (they had steak!). There are street vendors and markets in every neighbourhood, and red carrots almost half a meter long were common. For more familiar things, there´s a beef-free McDonalds, and a local version of a kind of Starbucks called Cafeccino that sells frappuccinos worth waiting in line for.
I was only going to spend 2 nights/1 day in Kolkata, since I was enroute to Bangladesh. My second night I stayed at the Hotel Bengal Guesthouse, which says it has a bar and restaurant, but doesn´t, and the dorm rooms aren´t arranged by gender, but passport. I stayed in the ´foreigner´dorm, where Indians and Bangladesh travelers can´t stay. There was a middle-aged Chinese man with me, who spoke not a single word of English, and after listening to me trying to cough myself to sleep, came over and tried some Chinese medicine on me, with the help of his smartphone translating.
As far as tourism goes, there´s not a whole lot to do or see in Kolkata city itself. If you like architecture and religious monuments, don´t miss the Birla Mandir temple and St. Paul´s cathedral. Nearby, the Victoria Memorial is unforgettable, as big and white as the Taj Mahal, surrounded by groomed, green gardens (nota bene: Indians pay 30 rupees to enter, foreigners, 500). The New Market and Park Street are worth a stroll, especially in the evening, unless you´re like me and trying to avoid Christmas – apparently there are enough Christians and westerners around to justify decorating the whole length of Park street in Christmas lights with festive music beaming from speakers at every major intersection and hawkers selling tacky hats and LED jewellery. I looked forward to arriving in Bangladesh the next morning, where the Muslim city of Dhaka would actually be skipping Christmas.
What happens when you spend 24 days in Goa, 21 of them in school for 14 hours a day? You become a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher. I also finally got the balls to roadtrip on my own motorcycle on our only 3 days off to visit the whole coast of Goa and down into Gokarna, Karnataka, when that wasn’t enough, since I’m not used to sitting still for 3.5 weeks in any place. Sleeping in the same bed for 24 nights straight hasn’t happened since college, and even then I don’t ever remember exactly when.
I enjoyed the yoga a lot, which was good because we had atleast 3 hours of it a day, but I couldn´t get into the daily meditation. Dynamic meditations, Osho Kundalini, just made me tired or energized. The guided, relaxing mediation was wonderful, but never for the right reasons. They always lost me somewhere around “you´re walking in dewy grass, barefoot, and dip your toes in the cold clear water…” or “listen to the babbling brook…” because instead, I was feeling mosquitos and listening to dogs bark and a rickety train pass. When I was relaxed, I’d never fall asleep, but get so distracted, with an intense clarity of mind for all the things I wanted to do and write.
The daily structure was the same:
6:30 Self Practice and ‘neti’, salt-water nose rinsing
7:00 90 minute yoga class, either Ashtanga, Hatha, Aerial or Yin
10:15 Philosophy or Anatomy
11:30 Yoga Asana clinic
15:20 Philosophy or Anatomy
16:30 90 minute yoga
All the meals for vegetarian, and the menu didn´t change much from day to day. Breakfast always had 1 hot item, either porridge or pancake (or crepe or roti, whatever you want to call it), oats, corn flakes, yogurt and fruits (watermelon and bananas were constant). Lunch was roti, rice, dhal and a curry, either with red, green or yellow gravy, salad (which was usually cucumber based) and more yogurt. Dinner was roti, rice dhal, curry (a different colour than lunch) and salad, but no yogurt. If you were lucky, there was a milky desert, or someones birthday meant a chocolate cake was shared sparingly around to forty sugar craving mouths.
I had intense chocolate cravings almost the entire time I was there, and Im not even a sweet tooth normally. I never missed meat, and didn’t get tired of rice or poppadoms (the gluten-free substitute to roti), but chocolate was an issue. And half way thru the training, a chocolate monster stole a bunch of my (and some others´) chocolate from the tiny communal fridge and they anonymously received a karma-death sentence since we never found out who it was but made sure everyone knew the chocolate was missing.
The yoga teachers were wonderful, and taught us so much in less than a month. The learning was intense, and burn out is bound to happen, so they became more than just teachers, but also our friends and mentors. Some were more professional than others, and some more strict, but the only teacher I couldn´t enjoy was the one foreign teacher. The Indian teachers seemed better role models of the yogic lifestyle, while the Australian was only half present, impatient and frankly, not spot on the material she taught.
We completed the course with a handful of written assignments, one written exam, and a practical exam that meant teaching our first yoga class. Everyone passed, and no grades were given since giving a mark defeats the whole purpose of yoga. I wish other schools of learning applied the same rules! Although it makes you wonder if everyone that graduates should really be a yoga teacher, especially me…
The first time I came to India was with Semester at Sea in fall 2006, and I hated it. I was so sick and tired after a six day whirlwind where I barely slept and got my first case of Delhi belly. We ported in Chennai, flew to Delhi, whizzed around the Golden Triangle in 72 hours. We saw Mahatma Gandhi’s last home in New Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Pink city of Jaipur, traveling half a day between each of the three, before flying back to Chennai and reboarding the MV Explorer. In between, we rode Elephants, fed monkeys and received henna tattoos, but just before sailing away, I drank a cocktail with bad ice and was immobilised for the next 3 days on the ship.
My second visit to India was only to Bangalore and surrounds, including Hampi and attending a Hindi wedding, which was a whole other world of experiences. India is never simple or easy, and I threw a vertebrae out on a jaunty train ride in economy class, but this visit made me want to return.
Here I am, in Mumbai, the New York and LA of the east, affectionately known as Bollywood. Its worlds away from South East Asia, and different than Delhi and Chennai, but somehow so familiar. India is always a whirlwind, a chaotic circus of cultures, languages, tourists and religion. I try to be a passerby, watching from the sidelines, but I’m already so deep into it by the time I sit in my first rikshaw I’ve hailed from the street outside Mumbai international airport.
The meter goes up, and I pay less than one euro to travel 5 km’s to my hostel. There’s an above-ground metro system, newly installed, which costs three times the price of the deteriorating public railroad transport. I ride both during my day visit to the sights, and hanging outside of the open doors of the train compartment overfilled with women only was much more exciting than the sterile, air-conditioned skytrain.
I go to the Gateway of India, and leave from there instead of arrive. I’m on a ferry to Elephanta Island, to see the caves and monkeys. I eat only street food – vada pav, panipuri and bhel puri, breaking my gluten-free diet. I don’t drink anything except lemon soda since I’m starting my one month of detoxing yoga teacher training in a couple of days in Goa.
I stay at a hostel, making sure to pick the women’s only dorm. Indian men have all sorts of construed perceptions of western woman. There was a banner in Mumbai recently that advertised “Go to Goa to see the Western Whores” with a picture of Pamela Anderson from Baywatch. I wondered if we all really look like that on the beach – light-skinned, blonde bimbos in skimpy bathing suits working on our tanlines and beach bods and thought ‘yeah, touché.´ Mental Note to self: dress more conservatively and try to blend in as an Indian tourist. There are local tourists with my complexion also suffering language barriers so I should fit right in!
I took an overnight train, the beloved Konkan Kanya Express, getting a top bunk in a 9 person berth. It was like a lower level second class, since first class and third class were fully booked, but I was relieved to travel by the cool of the night, undisturbed by others so close to the ceiling. I looked forward to waking up in Goa, and was surprised to find myself the only one left in the train by the time we pulled up at Madgaon.
Our Travr family started our journey through Thailand south with a flight to Krabi. Though its maybe not technically an island, we had to take a longboat taxi to Railay beach so it certainly had an island feel. There was a bit of beach on either side of a narrow strip of land, no more than a few hundred meters wide and 1 km long , with towering limestone cliffs on either side. We climbed to the top of one for some views, and as if that wasn’t high enough, we also climbed the trees to get a little higher.
Travr is cool because if books the journey, mostly the transportation and accommodation, but besides a couple of meals and a handful of activities, you’re left with a lot of free time to eat when/where you want and try things that float your boat. The problem was that all the Travr activities were exactly what I wanted to do, so I got to relax and get some more massages and poolside time.
We went ATVing in Krabi, which meant 13 excited young adults shown up, signed their lives away, got a helmet and an ATV, and were set free. A sentence or two for a safety talk, but no lessons or instructions on how to drive an ATV. We drove around, sticking together as a group, but I’m still impressed no one got hurt or disappeared on their bike. I was certainly tempted to do a little off-roading and a few close calls and tree crashes later, we all came back in one piece.
We had incredible sunsets, infinity pools, and pool games before heading on to Koh Phi Phi. It’s a slice of paradise, and a slice of party, inseparable from each other on this tiny island. We took a longboat tour to do some snorkeling, cliff-jumping, and checked out the eerie, inhabited Viking cave. I got attacked at Monkey Beach, but others were lucky enough to have friendly monkeys pose prettily on their knees or shoulders.
We stayed at the PP Princess resort, which had only handsome European and Moroccan pool boy waiters, making the pool a very attractive place to waste time at. Sadly the pool shut at 7pm, so we had to find other things to entertain us in the evenings; Thai boxing and beer pong where a thing, as well as fire dancing and neon/black light discotheques.
At Phuket, we had yet another beachside pool to enjoy, with buckets on Happy hour and Bangla road calling us out in the evenings. We made it to one ping pong show, and I can’t even begin to start explaining what we saw there. Acts that were just as shocking as impressive, and disgusting to witness but too interesting to turn away from… obviously cameras weren’t allowed and words can’t begin to express the sights, so I’ll just stop there. Go see your own ping pong show if you dare!
South East Asia is a playground for every kind of tourist. I met Cambodian and Thai backpackers in Laos, and Thailand attracts everything from 18 year old Australians with tiny wallets to Russian mafia with extravagant budgets. I came to Thailand first in 2008 as a broke, newly graduated punk from college, traveling with my Canadian best friend and staying in $1/night bungalows on beaches only accessible by boat. This time around, I had slightly upgraded myself; I was traveling Travr style, with 12 Americans staying in 4 and 5 star hotels and traveling by AC ferries, taxis and domestic flights.
We started in Bangkok at the Grand Swiss Hotel, meeting at the Sky Lounge for introductions. I’d be rooming with Cookie, a nickname that couldn´t have suited her better. We had a welcome dinner at nearby Oskar restaurant, and ended the night at Sky Bar, the 68th floor rooftop bar made infamous by Hollywood’s Hangover 2.
We visited Bangkok, including the Sunrise temple and Kings Palace, cruising on the Bangkok river and eating our tummies full of pad thai at more delicious restaurants. We enjoyed the mandatory night out at Khao San Road, and most everyone squeezed in a Thai massage or some kind of spa time – I finally got a manicure and pedicure.
The highlight of our first few days was definitely Elephants World. It’s an Elephant sanctuary, where no one rides or beats them but keeps them free roaming and tame to one or two caretakers. We came to spend a day in the life of a caretaker, feeding the toothless old Elephant with some hand mashed bananas and vitamins and the toothless baby elephant hand-peeled bananas. We fed the other elephants hand-picked grass, which was transported by truck it was so tall and plentiful. And then, they put us in a muddy pool and told us to give the elephants a mud bath – we had become the spa! We picked up slimy handfuls of mud, mixed with lots of poopy fiber floating around, and rubbed the parts of the elephant we could reach. Once in a while the elephant would take a trunk full of muddy water and spray it over his back, and all of us, so we all ended up looking like muddy elephants.
We then moved over to the cleaner, flowing river, where we were given buckets and brooms to clean the elephant, and ourselves, swimming around these peaceful giants when it got too deep, and lying on their backs when we got too tired. I’ll never forget the feeling of watching that elephants face watching us – his eyes were really smiling, just as much as we were.
On the way back, we stopped at the Bridge on the River Kwai, which the British & Americans destroyed at the end of WWII . We were nearly pushed off the edge when a train came thru, slowing down but not stopping, assuming the dozens of tourists wouldn’t mind moving over to the tiny spaces we had to avoid getting run over. Looking down was also tricky since the spaces between planks was probably large enough to slip a foot thru, but I was mostly worried if that rickety wooden bridge could really support the whole weight of the train for so long, but then got distracted by all the smiling faces hanging out the open windows and waving at us as they passed.