So far on this trip we’ve been lucky. We’ve had a pair of underwear and a tanktop disappear at the laundry. We left a headlamp somewhere in Nicaragua (probably the very first night). We managed to lose an ATM card in Vietnam, but despite not noticing that the card was missing for a day since we last used it, no one else tried to use it, and we were able to cancel it without consequence. We also had thought ahead and brought another ATM card for a separate account, so we were able to keep on getting money without trouble. But Monday morning our number came up.

We were on the train from Jhansi to Varanasi, in the 2AC sleeping compartment. We locked our big bags to the chains underneath our beds. All our most important valuables–our passports, our ATM and credit cards, and our cash–were in the secret pockets my mom had sewn inside our pants before we left. We were safe.

We’d traveled in the 2AC sleeper on the Indian trains multiple times on this trip. They’re fairly nice, comfortable enough, and uncrowded, occupied mainly by other tourists and upper class Indians. For the average Indian, the cost of riding in this class is prohibitive though we find the tickets to be relatively cheap. Anyhow, the compartments, don’t have doors, but a set of four beds (two bunks) is closed off to the aisle by a curtain. It’s always felt quite secure. The only people that are supposedly allowed in these cars are those with bunks in it. It’s impossible to walk from other sections into this section, and a guy stationed outside is supposed to be only letting on those with proper tickets.

So, boarding the train at 10:30, we immediately made up our bunks, pulled the curtain closed, and climbed in bed. Jeff and I had the two bottom ones. An Indian business traveler had the one above Jeff. The one above me stayed empty. All of our stuff was secured, except for my purse (an LL Bean Travel Touring Bag). There was nothing of real value in the purse. It just contained things I like to carry around with me on a daily basis, as well as a few things I might need at night. So, because I want to have easy access to toilet paper in case I have to run to the bathroom, the headlamp to see in the darkened train car, my glasses so I don’t stumble into the hole that serves as a toilet, I sleep with my purse curled up next to me in bed. I’ve done this on every train we’ve taken for the past year. I’m a light sleeper. It’s right next to me. No one but the people in my little compartment can see my anyhow. It’s safe.

Except not this time. Monday morning, at 6:45 am, I woke up. I wasn’t sure what had woken me up, but it was something. I was groggy. I looked around. I noticed the curtain in front of my bed had been pulled aside. I thought this was odd, but my first thought was that a passing person or their luggage had pulled it. I sat up in bed and pulled it back closed. I laid down again. And I then immediately realized my purse was gone. I woke Jeff.

What had happened was that someone had pulled open my curtain, grabbed the bag from next to my sleeping body, and ran off. This is obvious now. But when you just wake up, your brain isn’t functioning that quickly. Our first instinct was to look around our compartment. It couldn’t have gone anywhere, right. I mean, it was right next to my body for Pete’s sake. But no, it was gone. We tried to get help, but it was futile. No one around us claimed to have seen anything. We couldn’t find a staff member that spoke English for the life of us. We looked around and found nothing. And at the next stop, when Jeff hopped off and talked to a police officer, the best they could say was “You’ll never see it again.” Thanks. Very helpful.

The best we can figure is that someone managed to slip on our train at one of the many stops. They peeked in curtains and at mine (unfortunately, the second compartment from the door) they got lucky. I was unlucky. I had just kicked off my blankets because I was hot. Until then, my purse had been covered up along with me. They grabbed for my purse, which was right near my waist. At 6 am, the strap had been under me. I know that because I woke up then because the guy sharing our compartment had just gotten up, and I readjusted the strap because it was bothering me. In the next 45 minutes, the strap came unsecured from me. I figure the movement of the thief grabbing my bag from beside me woke me. I assume the asshole ran off with my bag in hand. I took just a bit too long to register what happened. We looked inside instead of outside. We gave humanity the benefit of the doubt for a second too long. And by the time, the realization of it struck, the train was in motion and the thief and my bag were long gone.

Above everything, I’m pissed. I’m pissed that there are such shitty people in the world. I’m pissed that someone would violate me like that. I’m pissed that this person has made me feel so angry toward India. And I’m pissed because there’s not hardly a single damn thing in my purse that’s worth a dime to anyone else, but there is stuff in there that, though worth nothing, is valuable to me. I would certainly like to have my glasses back. Getting my driver’s license replaced (the only card of any sort in the purse) is going to be a pain in the ass. I could certainly use the hand sanitizer in this dirt pit of a country. But what I most want is my little notebooks, the little tiny books in which I keep track of our expenses, write down the email addresses of people I meet, scribble notes about things I see, jot down to-do lists. It’s all completely meaningless to anyone else. I’m pretty sure that the notebooks have probably already been thrown into one of the million and one heaps of trash in this country. And while I’d like to get some satisfaction out of the fact that the low-life thief got nothing for his crime, I can’t. I’m just pissed. I’d gladly hand over a few bucks or whatever else they can find some use for if they’d just give me back my stupid notebooks.

(P.S. If you’re reading this blog because we met you somewhere during our journey and we exchanged info, could you please email us? I’m sorry to say but some Indian lowlife now has your email address.)

(P.P.S. Yes, we are insured. We have a World Nomads policy that covers theft, and we will be filing a report. But like I said before, it’s not the replaceable stuff that I want back. Argh!)

(P.P.P.S. Thanks, Mom, for the secret pockets. They’re a lifesaver!)

(P.P.P.P.S. I apologize for the language in this post, but I’m pissed!)

Through the Desert on Camelback

There’s a certain romanticism associated with the desert. Perhaps it’s because of ancient stories of explorers crossing the desert in camel trains, the silk route winding its way through the sandy landscapes of the east. Maybe it’s the vastness–of the desert underfoot and the sky overhead–that ignites the imagination. Perhaps it’s the harshness of it, the incredulousness that anything or anyone can survive here.

Whatever it is, it has spawned stories and songs. The Eagles sang of their desire to sleep in the desert with a million stars overhead, and America romanticizes the escapism of being a nameless person crossing a desert on a nameless horse.

But friends, I’m here to tell you that neither crossing the desert or sleeping in the desert is all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s an adventure—a hot, sweaty, sandy, dirty, adventure—but it’s one of those that you can put on the list of “I’m glad I did it once, but I don’t ever need to do it again” adventures.

From the town of Jaisalmer, a small city crowned by an incredible fort, on the eastern edges of India, where the temperature hit a lovely 42 degrees Celsius, we set out by jeep for the sands of the Thar desert.

About 40 kilometers from the city, we were greeted by a group of local camel herders and their charges. Before we could have a long enough look at the camels to register just how ugly they are, we were sitting in a saddle on top of them, leaning back, and holding on, as these awkward animals clammered to their feet.

Then, forming a train, we were off. Though I didn’t see any of the camels spit, as they are well known to do, I did get to hear more than a few farts. For not eating or drinking that much, these animals sure do produce a lot of gas. It wasn’t quite the soundtrack I had in mind for the trip. But the desert itself also wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I pictured high rolling dunes, a vastness empty of anything but sand. I think I was picturing the Namib desert. What we got instead was a scrubby desert, low and flat with lots of thorny shrubs, punctuated every once in a while by a nice dune.

The sun blazed overhead, but a constant wind blew making it seem not as blistering. The camels rocked back and forth, and for most of the two hours that we rode, it was, while not romantic, still fun. At least it was for me until my camel decided he’d had enough and tried to buck me off. Maybe I should have been a cowgirl, because I hung on and rode it out for what seemed like a good eight seconds, until the herders got him under control. I was a bit uneasy after that and when he showed signs of a second round of misbehaving, I opted to hop down and walk. Luckily we were just a bit shy of our destination, one of the few dunes of the Thar desert, from which we watched the sun disappear.

Then, with me sharing a camel with Jeff this time, we continued on a short bit to our campsite, where we had a very tasty dinner and watched the sky light up with stars. This was my favorite part of the trip, the sky a diamond studded blanket complete with shooting stars. I should have just stayed up watching the stars, because sleeping in the desert is just flat out not romantic. The wind that had kept things bearable during the day, blew all night, sending sand onto our beds and into our blankets. The heat disappeared and a wetness moved in, leaving our pillow and blankets damp, and us feeling sticky and gross.

I was happy to see the sun rise and to bid the desert good morning. I think a family who started the trip with us had the right idea when they opted for a one-day safari, returning to Jaisalmer and a hotel room with a bed and a shower, around 10 p.m.–long enough to enjoy a camel ride and see the magnificent sky but not endure a long, uncomfortable night.

Around 9 a.m., after breakfast, I gladly hopped up onto my camel–not the same one as yesterday, but a calmer camel–knowing that a shower was only a few hours away. I felt pretty disgusting. We again rode for about two hours.

The scenery for the most part was the same as the day before, although this time we did come across a village with a well where women in brightly colored clothes from all over the area gathered to collect water and carry it home on their heads. I admired them. I’m not sure what inspires them to live in the desert, but they must be tough people. One night in this most unforgiving of landscapes was plenty for me.

The Silliest Border Ever

It’s no secret that India and Pakistan are long-time rivals and, often, enemies. Border territory, like Kashmir, is still disputed, and more than one war has been fought over the last fifty years. But the rivalry descends into its silliest at the border in Wagha, outside Amritsar.

It seems, over the years, “oneupsmanship” between the Indian and Pakistani border guards has led to quite a spectacle every night as the border closes. We arrived in our rickshaw amid hundreds of other Indians attending the ceremony, many with Indian flags, many in armed forces uniforms. The number of parked cars along the road makes for a long walk to the border, where giant permanent concrete spectator stands line both the Indian and Pakistani sides. It’s really like attending a major sporting event. We are lead to seats in the “tourist” section and have a seat.

Though we are 45 minutes early for the ceremony, the party has already started. Bollywood music is blasting over the speakers and people are lined up to carry the Indian flag down the road to the gate separating the countries. The old, hobbled people receive the biggest applause.

A little later, the flags disappear and the dancing begins, and the stands continue to fill. By the time the ceremony starts, the Indian side is completely full, while the Pakistani side remains decidedly empty, perhaps with 50 or so people. Not really a contest over who will be the loudest.

It starts with the introduction of the guards, almost like a starting lineup is announced, and as they enter, it is our first view of the much repeated high-leg kick. Then, repeated shouts of “Hindustan” with some sort of incomprehensible response from the crowd. This will also be a recurring theme.

It’s hard for us understand and remember exactly what all happened next, but there was definitely some speed marching to the gate, long, drawn out “aaahhh” sounds, a few salutes, and a few openings of the gate where at identically but oppositely clad Pakistani guard would do the exact opposite of the Indian guard. Each action was met with thunderous applause and celebration. Eventually, both sides were in position holding their still waving flags, and at the signal, everyone pulled down their various flags at exactly the same time and exactly the same speed. Then there was the emphatic closing of gates and speed marching back into the border guard house, all met with more thunderous applause. We couldn’t help but laugh through nearly the entire event.

While it was completely silly and ridiculous, it’s the kind of thing that gives you some hope about the relationship between these two countries. If I may paraphrase Lewis Black, things go to shit when there’s no one to poke fun and everyone is too serious to laugh. India and Pakistan are always going to be rivals, but it needs to become a friendly and silly rivalry rather than a dangerous one. These kinds of events seemed to be step in the right direction, and it was hilarious to watch to boot!

Dharamshala: Tibet in Exile

Back in the day when I had more tapes than CDs and had no idea what an MP3 was, my brother had in his music collection a tape of the Tibetan Freedom Concert. I can’t recall a single song on the tape, but I’m sure it must have had on it what we considered good music. I’m pretty certain we didn’t buy it out of altruism or a burning desire to help Tibet, because I’ll go ahead and be frank here and say that I’m pretty sure I didn’t have the first clue what the deal with Tibet was, why it needed to be freed, or who it needed to be freed from. I can say with near certainty that though I knew it was in Asia, I couldn’t have picked it out on an unlabeled map. Tibet meant nothing to me.

Fortunately, I got a bit more worldly as I got older. I came to understand that the Himalayan nation of Tibet had been claimed by China, and that the Dalai Lama had been forced out of the once-country, now-territory over which he had presided, and that Tibetan Buddhism was under attack. In the past few years, I have read reports of a high-speed train China built to Tibet, its unexpressed purpose being to move majority Chinese into Tibet, turning the native people into a minority. Yet not until I arrived in the northwest Indian city of Dharamshala did I realize the full extent of the situation.

Dharamshala is the home of the Tibetan government in exile. It is where the Dalai Lama lives as well as thousands of Tibetan refugees. Though in India, Dharmshala hardly feels Indian, with the majority of restaurants serving Tibetan food, Buddhism prevailing over the usually dominant Hinduism, and men and women all dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes. It has been this way for 50 years now, since 1959. Entire generations of Tibetans have been born in India. But almost all, even those who have never stepped foot in Tibet, want to go home. Unfortunately, they don’t believe they can. In fact, many of them risked life and limb to make it to India. (Literally, as many people lost feet, hands, and even entire extremities to frostbite while hiking over the Himalayan Mountains. Others lost their lives.)

What China has done to Tibet is appalling. During the cultural revolution, they destroyed nearly every temple and every cultural site in Tibet. Those that remained, they have converted into army barracks or even toilets. They forced the Dalai Lama into exile after taking over the government, claiming as they did so that they were freeing the people from his oppression. They then demanded that monks and nuns desecrate sacred documents and withdraw allegiance from His Holiness. Those who refused were taken into custody, tortured, jailed, made to do forced labor, and sometimes killed.

And it hasn’t stopped. Brave men and women still step out in protest against the Chinese, and nearly always end up jailed or dead. Tibetan school children must attend Chinese schools and study only in Chinese, forbidden to learn their own language, culture, or history. The child identified as the reincarnation of one of the previous Dalai Lamas was kidnapped along with his family and has been held at an unknown location, despite demands from the international community for his release, for going on two decades now. This means that when the current Dalai Lama passes away the chain of succession could be destroyed and Tibetan Buddhism upended. And finally, the Chinese make continuous protests to India about the freedom the Dalai Lama is given to move as he pleases (they believe he should not be allowed out of Dharamshala). They have gone so far as to refuse to attend international conferences when some of the participants have had recent meetings with the Dalai Lama. Why they find this man, who preaches nothing but messages of peace and universal understand, so damn threatening, I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

I’m sure there’s more to the story than this. I’m no expert on Tibet, on China, on the Dalai Lama. I know there’s always a flip side. But regardless of what the other side may say, I strongly believe that there can be no justification for violence, for murder, for brutality, for the destruction of culture and heritage, for the oppression of religion, for the denial of sovereignty, for the stealing of freedom.

Tibet deserves to be free. Unfortunately, a couple of concerts and a few tapes wasn’t enough to convince China to grant Tibet its freedom. What will convince them, I’m not sure. But I’m hopeful that if I return to Dharamshala in another fifty years, I won’t find banners thanking India for 100 years of providing amnesty to Tibetans. I hope by then they’ll all be back home. Dharamshala might not be better for it, but the world will be.

The Weather Turns

Sometimes you wake up at 5:00 AM and start walking through the pouring rain … and really start to question why you keep doing this. Then you get on the painfully slow, narrow gauge train that supposedly has such wonderful views only to realize you won’t see anything due to this wonderful rain that has now soaked you through to the core. And all the while, we’re trying to cope with a sensation we haven’t felt in a long time – cold.

But then the train starts. It chugs along, winding uphill steadily. We dip in and out of the clouds as the rain comes in spurts. The views, while not vast, envelop hills in various shades of cloudy grey. We get a hot cup of tea to warm us up, and we sit back and enjoy the show.

The train chugs in two hours late and we trudge to a hotel, though mercifully, the rain has stopped. The clouds slowly diminsh as the day wears on, until we are rewarded for our early morning efforts with a gorgeous sunset.

We have landed in Shimla, the famous hill station and seat of the British Raj every summer. More rewards await us the next morning. We awaken to crystal clear skies and a view of all the hills surrounding us and stretching all the way across to the Himalayan range.

Thrilled with the prospect of our first good weather day in India, we decide to go for a walk the tourism office recommended. It turned out to be a bit more challenging and less clear than a “walk,” but it was the kind of day I really like. The terrain was varied, we wandered downhill through wooded forests in the “glen” before winding back up hill through local villages on a trail that led to a beautiful waterfall before returning to the British opulance of the Viceregal Lodge, the former summer home of the Viceroy of India and a classic British building that looked like something out of Harry Potter.

The people were wonderful, we said a few namastes and hellos, posed for a few pictures and shared a whole lot of smiles. And the weather was perfect. So we got our answer … days like this are why we keep doing this.

Smile! You’re On Some Indians Camera

So you’re probably wondering who these people are that we’re posing with in these photos. Well, so are we. We don’t know them. We didn’t meet them until about two seconds before the camera shutter snapped. They might have mentioned their names when they thanked us for the photo, but that’s all we got.

So why are we in the photos? Well, we’re not exactly clear on that either, but apparently Indian people really like to have their photo taken with white people. It started at the Red Fort in Delhi, when a guy asked Jeff to take a photo with him. We originally thought he wanted us to take a picture for him, but he quickly made it clear that he wanted Jeff to be in the picture.

The photo-taking continued at our next destination, Shimla, where Jeff was asked to pose with people’s young sons as well as by older gentleman. I was snapped in photos with local women. It seemed taboo to take a photo with the opposite sex as it was always Jeff with men and me with women. And they never wanted just a photo of us; they wanted to be in the photo with us.

Neither of us can quite figure out what the heck these people do with the photos. Do they go home and show all their friends the photo of the white person they saw on their holiday? Do they make up some story and in someone else’s world, we’re their best friend or co-worker or long lost cousin? Are we hanging on someone’s Indian refrigerator? I really have no idea. But for some reason, being in a photo with us makes these people quite happy, so we just smile for the camera and then accept their thanks. It must be good karma.

First Impressions of India

It’s hard to believe its come to this, but we now have less than one month left on our journey. We are spending most of that time in India, having arrived here last night. So far, here are our first impressions.

We have this habit of overpreparing. This is sometimes good and useful, and other times pretty much counterproductive. For the last four days of our time in Malaysia, we poured over websites and through our guidebook, absorbing every tidbit of information we could about India. All of this extra time to think and rethink is also partially an indictment of the lack of enthralling activities to do in KL combined with the archaic and tedious process of obtaining an Indian visa.

Nevertheless, we found ourselves hearing all sorts of horror stories about the subcontinent, especially for new arrivals. We were amazed and terrified by stories of rampant pickpocketing, constant tout bothering, scammy drivers, demands for tips, food poisoning and various combinations of the above.

Things did not get off to a great start. Our thorough research had uncovered a well reviewed hotel near the train station in Delhi, the quality being quite a unique and remarkable thing for the area. After emailing for two days trying to find out the rate and reserve a room, we ultimately failed to know anything for certain as we boarded the plane in Kuala Lumpur. So we got off the plane in India not really knowing where we were going, already breaking a cardinal rule of tout filled areas. We had decided to head to our chosen hotel anyway, bought a prepaid taxi ticket after comparing rates of a few companies, and headed out to the taxi ranks. Here things got confusing. One tout tried to lead us away from the taxi rank. We followed him for a few steps before realizing he was headed away from the taxis. Then another tout offered his services and led us to the third taxi in line. Thinking the first two already had customers, we got in, but the yelling and arguing that ensued probably meant the tout had an arrangement with lucky #3. Just as we pulled away our friendly tout jumped in the car with us and began chatting us up. We spun a good yarn about it being our third visit to India, this time to visit our friend who was working in Delhi and was waiting for us at our hotel, where we already had a reservation. Finding this scenario to be unlucrative, since he couldn’t steer us to his hotel of choice, our tout friend jumped out on the onramp to the highway out of the airport.

Arriving at the hotel, we pulled into the Pahar Ganj area of Delhi. At 11 PM, this area is choc-a-block full of people with nowhere else to go. Cardboard beds lined the streets, people wandered about and a few rickshaws waited for fares that weren’t materializing. Every shop was sealed shut and the whole neighborhood was terribly uninviting. It was not somewhere we wanted to be wandering around with backpacks looking for somewhere to stay. Luckily, when we arrived at the hotel, they had reserved a room for us and we checked in no problem. Waking up the next morning, we found a bustling series of market streets coupled with a chorus of honking and lively chatter amongst people despite the monsoon rain. In reality, a complete 180 from the night before.

Our first mission was to book our train tickets, which we managed with relative ease at the tourist booking office, scheduling out our entire next three weeks. On the one hand, this was a terrifying prospect, because one thing we have become accustomed to is last minute and spur of the moment decision making, but on the other, it is nice to not have to think so much about what we are doing the next three weeks.

Our afternoon consisted of our first foray out into Delhi. We started by hiring a rickshaw to take us to the National Museum. After a long drive, frankly longer than either of us were expecting, our driver pulled over in quite an industrial area and with a smile pointed to a sign that said “International Doll Museum.” There were two things wrong with this: first, what kind of rickshaw driver doesn’t know where one of the biggest attractions of the city is, but second, what kind of driver instead knows where the International Doll Museum is? I mean, when I asked where on the map we were, we were halfway out of the city. Amazing really. Anyway, we got him straightened out and after almost as long a trip headed back, we arrived at the museum.

We perused the museum until closing, a beautiful collection of Indian art dating back five millenia through a long and impressive history. We left and headed for the India Gate, circumnavigating it before walking back along the Rajpath up to Parliament and the President’s house. We walked back to Connaugh Place through a light but steady rain before giving up and hiring a rickshaw back to the hotel. We never any troubles, rarely had touts bother us and if so, never for long, found most people to be delightful and helpful and the areas of the city we visited, especially along the Rajpath, to be lovely. For all the stories we’ve heard and worries we had, I must say, we’re off to a good start in India. Now let’s just hope writing this post hasn’t jinxed everything!

Bad Timing in Borneo

For most of our trip we’ve been lucky. Without much advance planning, things have gone our way. We were able to snag a bed in the refugios at Torres del Paine a few days before we set off on our hike. In Uganda, on less than week’s notice, we managed to get five passes to trek with the gorillas. Luck was being a lady to us, as these are things that people tell you you must book months if not years in advance. We were assisted by the fact that in South America and Africa we were traveling outside of the high season. Additionally, the global economic crisis was keeping a lot of travelers at home.

Advance planning is not a friend of the long-term backpacker. When you have months in a region of the world, you don’t want to tie yourself down to being in any one place at any one time. It limits you…forcing you to leave somewhere you love before you are ready or linger longer somewhere that doesn’t much interest you. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes that kind of planning is necessary.

When we entered Southeast Asia, we knew the game was going to change a little. It was summer, European vacation time as well as Australian winter vacation time, and SE Asia is a hotspot for these travelers. It’s also a backpacker haven with visitor numbers always hovering at a high number. But for the most part, things went our way. Crowds were bigger, but we weren’t kept from doing anything we wanted, as long as we maintained a bit of flexibility.

Then we hit Malaysia. Suddenly having the flexibility to wait a few days, or even a few weeks, wasn’t enough. Not only was it European holiday season here in Malaysia, which is buzzing with tourists who prebooked every little detail of their trip months ago when sitting in their offices watching the snow turn to mush outside their windows, it’s also school holidays for locals. Topping it off is the fact that it’s Ramadan.

I wasn’t aware of it but apparently Ramadanm, in addition to being a time of fasting and alms-giving, is a popular time for travel. (As a side note, Malaysia, though an Islamic nation, isn’t a difficult place to be food-wise during Ramadan. Thanks to the very multi-cultural population, lots of places stay open and serve food all day, in particular the Chinese and Indian restaurants.)

But back to the timing… It started on the Perhentian Islands, where we loaded a packed boat to arrive on an even more packed island. Every single accomodation option was booked. The room our dive shop had tried to reserve for us had been given away. People were sleeping on the beach, sleeping on the porches of already-full guesthouses. Our dive shop offered us a bed in a room behind the shop. It was literally nothing more than a bed next to a thumping bar, but it was the best we could do. The next morning we got up early to try to snag a room being emptied by one of the travelers returning to the mainland. We visited every single accomodation on Long Beach, Coral Beach, and every other foot-accessible beach. In the end, the best we could score was two dorm beds…as well as a reservation for a room the next three nights since someone at (the highly-recommended) Bintang View Cabins had had the courtesy to let the staff know when they were leaving.

You see, that was the biggest problem on the island. Bintang View was pretty much the only guesthouse that required guests to let the staff know at least one night before they departed. No other guesthouse knew what rooms they’d have available until the second the guest checked out. You had to be lucky and be there at that moment to snag that room, especially since nowhere took advance reservations. Why should they when they know they’ll have people begging at their door for a room?

From the Perhentians, our next stop was Taman Negara. Jerantut is the jumping-off point for Taman Negara, and where we found loads and loads of tourists securing boat tickets to the park. While Jeff joined the line, I went down the road to see if I could find another place selling the tickets. I wandered into an empty travel agency and when I inquired about getting to Taman Negara, the man who made a living by selling such tickets, advised me not to go to the park, to go far, far away in fact. He raged about crowds and told me to tell all my friends not to come. It wasn’t exactly what I expected from a travel agent.

And though we considered his advice, we were there and wanted to go, so we just tried to find a way to beat the crowd. Instead of the boat, we took the local bus, which not only got us to the park two hours earlier, it also cost us 1/5 of the price. There before the crowd, we were luckily able to get a room; the hordes wandering around after the boat arrived were not all as lucky. It seems all those “Malaysia Truly Asia” commercials all over television were too effective. The hordes were here; the accommodation options were not.

From the mainland we hopped over to Borneo, hoping that perhaps it wasn’t as crowded. No such luck. On a visit to the Tourist Information center in Sandakan, we were asked what we wanted to do on Borneo. Our answer was “dive Sipadan, climb Mt. Kinabalu, visit Gulung Mulu.” The very helpful lady there smiled and wished us luck, giving us a bunch of phone numbers to call to ask about cancellations. Getting a spot outright for any of these activities was not a possibility. And in the end cancellations weren’t to be found either. Diving Sipadan, one of the best dive sites in the world, would have to wait. For Mt. Kinabalu, we’d just have to be content with hiking around the base. And maybe Niah Caves would be as cool as Gulung Mulu. It wasn’t what we had planned (or, well, hadn’t planned) but it would have to do.

It looks like we’ll have to make a return trip to Borneo, but next time we’ll have it all nicely planned and booked up. Well, at least as much of it as we can. Seeing a rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, in bloom isn’t something you can nail down, but it didn’t work out for us and our non-planning either. To add insult to injury, we missed the blooming of one of these flowers by one measly day. As they say, when it rains, it pours (which it literally is doing here today).

Jeff Versus the Noodle

Brunei is a tiny country. If you were motivated you could probably walk right across it. And as you might suspect, there’s not a whole lot for a traveler to do in Brunei. So why did we stop there? Well, crossing Brunei is the easiest way to get from the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah to the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak. And if you’re going to cross, you might as well stop and see what there is to see, right? That’s the way we see things.

So what is there to do? Well, in the conservative Muslim but rather friendly nation of Brunei, we pondered the trappings of wealth at the Royal Regalia Museum, respectfully reflected at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, peeked around the floating neighborhood of Kampung Ayer, took a hike to a waterfall, and snacked on some excellent satay.

And oh yeah, Jeff ate noodles. In fact, he ate three packages of Mee Goreng (fried noodles) in a span of just over three minutes. And while that’s fast, it wasn’t fast enough. Someone else managed to eat the same amount of noodles in a span of three minutes and a few less seconds. You see, Jeff’s idea of a good time in Brunei is entering a noodle eating contest, which was held as part of some great big Ramadan sale and festival. The contest was held after dark, of course, so as not to interfere with fasting.

The contest involved two sessions, with Jeff being the only non-local entered into either. His entry brought plenty of smiles from the locals, and he even had his own cheering session yelling “Go USA” as he shoveled noodles into his mouth. Entering the contest, Jeff didn’t think he stood a chance, but as the clock ticked toward the three minute mark, it was down to Jeff and a fellow competitor. They had a few forkfuls of noodles left on their plate, as well as a glass of tea that they had to slam down as the finale, while everyone else had mounds. I suspect that more than a few people entered the contest not to win, but to get a free dinner.

Though there were a few short seconds in the contest where it looked close, in the end Jeff fell to someone with a bit more practice eating noodles. Oh well, we would have missed the finals, scheduled for September 5, anyways, and I’m not sure what we would have done with the grand prize of hundreds of packages of noodles. The free dinner, free t-shirt, and new friends we made was prize enough. Maybe a few more eating contests is just what the world needs. It’s not too often that you see conservative Muslims chanting “Go USA. Go USA.”

Pictures from the River

We’ve been starving you of a picture heavy post for a while now. Since we’re best inspired by wildlife, I suppose that’s because we haven’t been in nature for a while. Sungai Kinabatangan, a long river on Borneo cutting through long tracts of primary jungle, provided a great way to get back into it. And two river cruises from the village of Sukau through the Sukau B&B were a great way of seeing it.

The first was a sunset cruise, followed early the next morning by a sunrise trip.

On both we saw loads of birds.

Not to mention loads of monkeys, including the always hilarious Proboscis Monkeys.

But the highlight of the trips was the rare and large herd of elephants we found eating near the river. They apparently only pass through once or twice a year.

All in all, it was a beautiful trip through some beautiful scenery teeming with amazing wildlife.